All-you-can-eat, anyone? COVID-19’s impact on the European shrimp market

August 21, 2020

2020: the year of COVID-19; the year of a global pandemic; the year the world came to an abrupt standstill in every single sector from travel to trade.

COVID-19 has had a huge impact on us all, on global trade in general, and certainly on the fish and seafood industry. In this ShrimpTails Inbox Intelligence Article, we’re going to look at how COVID-19 has impacted the European shrimp market specifically.

Some of the strong trends that already looked to be defining the future of the shrimp industry in this region, trends that pre-existed the COVID-19 pandemic, have been amplified; it’s fair to say that none have been diminished in strength. Added to this is that fact that new trends have emerged, borne out of the crisis itself. Our prediction is that many of the crisis-borne trends are likely to be short lived, but this doesn’t diminish their impact in the short term.

Current state of affairs

Most countries in Europe have now reopened their food service industries, to a greater or lesser extent, but it’s fair to say that none are operating at full capacity. In general, the further south you go, the stricter the social distancing measures are, so food service is being restarted and affected differently across Europe. Still, even in north-western Europe’s most northerly areas, there are fears of future waves of COVID-19, which could bring about the reinforcement of measures and potentially close down sectors of society and industry once more. It’s a time of great uncertainty for many industries, but in particular for an industry that relies so heavily on sociability as opposed to social “distancing”.

An illustration of how the economy is doing in general is Europe’s GDP and the figures speak for themselves: in 2020, Europe’s GDP is expected to fall by 7.4%, with a 3.8% drop in quarter one alone. This should be viewed in the context of the EU’s annual GDP growth usually being 1.5% on average.

European food service: “Ouch!”

When COVID-19 took hold in Europe, one of the first industries to take a direct hit was the food service industry, a huge outlet for seafood. With transmission being human-human and this happening at an alarming rate, social distancing measures were quickly implemented in many European countries meaning that restaurants, bars and cafes were forced to shut their doors with little notice, and events and other gatherings were abruptly put on hold.

COVID-19 hit Europe in mid-March when it became the new epicentre for the virus. Starting in the south, it then made its rounds. Most borders in Europe closed, including for inter-European travel. The food service sector shut down.

Italy issued a nationwide lockdown on 9 March, then the rest of Europe began to follow with lockdown measures being implemented all over Europe from week 12 (16 March) onwards. A full lockdown in Spain happened two days prior to that on 14 March, followed by the Netherlands’ so-called “intelligent lockdown” on 15 March, and the UK went into a full lockdown on 23 March as the virus rapidly took hold. Every European country’s lockdown durations varied, but the “week 12” marker also marked the start of great volatility for the shrimp trade in Europe. In terms of the length of time restaurants were closed, the hospitality industry in Spain began to open up again two months and 11 days after lockdown began, with restaurants, bars and cafes allowed to reopen from 25 May; the Netherlands’ lockdown lasted two months and 14 days, and restaurants, bars, cafes and terraces were allowed to reopen from 1 June; and the UK closed all restaurants, bars and pubs for over three months, with measures being eased for the hospitality sector on 4 July.

The following graph shows how Ecuador’s exports to Europe dropped in the weeks succeeding Europe going into lockdown, followed by heavy fluctuations between weeks 20-24.

While almost every country was touched by COVID-19, their reactions to it were drastically different. Southern Europe was the first European region to be affected, and COVID-19 really took hold in the region. The lockdown was complete. North-western Europe reacted differently and, if speaking generally, the severity of the lockdown measures decreased when moving further towards the geographic north. Yet the food service sectors in these countries were, none the less, greatly impacted and many outlets shut despite no “full” lockdowns being imposed in some of these more northerly countries.

The food service industry closing set in motion a range of different coping measures taken by most businesses that consider the “restaurant guest” their end customer. One response adopted by many food service companies (and their suppliers) was to try to adapt their point of sale: sit-down restaurants suddenly entered the take-away and delivery markets, and wholesalers were using social media and the internet to facilitate direct-to-customer sales. At the same time, governments trying to protect their domestic seafood producing industries encouraged their citizens to eat local products that would normally be exported.

How Europe reacted: (Re)learning how to cook and changing consumer trends

With dining out no longer an option, many Europeans started to get creative with their enforced time at home and many rediscovered the home kitchen. This, in turn, led to new ways to engage the consumer, and many businesses did this very well. By adapting the point of purchase, businesses were able to navigate the challenges thrown up by the closure of the food service industry. The end consumer’s appetite for seafood was indeed diminished by COVID-19, but only slightly.

The ShrimpTails team reached out to some of our friends across the shrimp industry in Europe to gain an insight into how they view the impacts of COVID-19 on the industry. Below, we analyse the main trends currently affecting the European shrimp market, particularly those that were either created by or changed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Southern Europe’s fresh-stall blues

Speaking to a Spanish-based importer targeting both wholesale and retail, we gained an insight into how business in south-western Europe has been impacted, learning of a shift in consumption trends as food service closed and shrimp could only be sold via retail channels. According to our source, fewer fresh and bulk products are being sold, while frozen and consumer-ready modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) products are on the rise. Most other product forms have suffered.

This region is traditionally known for hand-picking shrimp over fresh counters rather than buying pre-packaged products from supermarkets (as north-western Europeans prefer), but fears of COVID-19 contamination mean that consumers are moving towards MAP products, much like their northern counterparts. The spike in retail consumption of MAP products witnessed in southern Europe has been even more stark since the traditional major points of purchase for the region – i.e. fresh counters and markets – are considered to be “higher risk” areas for contracting the virus: they entail more human-human and human-produce contact than when purchasing a MAP product at the supermarket.

Southern European restaurants have started up again, but things are moving slowly: “Our processing arm is operating at full capacity, and it is only those companies that truly target retail that are in full swing. With such a large-scale market upset, and prices for shrimp (and other seafood) having taken a hit, we expect that we, and everybody else, will face some losses. Current stock is too expensive and hard to push.”

North-western Europe proves hard to predict

At the moment, cold stores are still relatively full in north-western Europe and it could well take a while for demand to increase again. This is a worrying state of affairs for many importers. One of the major struggles that importers faced was making predictions about what would be going on in the industry more than just a week in advance. One European importer that is mainly focused on the food service industry in north-western Europe told us that any prediction looking further than one week ahead had a high margin for error: “At least at the start [of the pandemic], reports were a bit confusing. We like to work on data and, with something so unprecedented, that data was hard to find and impossible to rely on.”

Food service has been hit particularly hard for shrimp: 40-50% of this importer’s shrimp ends up in the Asian restaurant sector. The all-you-can-eat segment of this sector has traditionally been a huge outlet for shrimp products in north-western Europe with some of these restaurants seating hundreds of people and feeding them a (shrimpy) feast. But with social distancing in place, and the fear that buffet-style dining could increase the risk of food becoming contaminated, not to mention the potential for increased human-human contact, this sector (and everyone serving it) may face some rough times ahead.

One of the other concerns is the looming economic crisis that this global pandemic is expected to cause. With the loss of spending power, luxuries inevitably go first, and when purse strings have to be tightened, restaurant visits will likely drop in the monthly expenditure of many – this would be the case during a time of financial hardship anyway, but even more so now with the associated risks to health that come with being in close proximity to others… as dining out entails. Currently, importers are buying conservatively as no one is sure what to expect.

As we near the harvest of several producing countries, we may well see prices drop even further if the market is unprepared for a sudden influx of product, especially if the food service sector isn’t back to full swing and ready to absorb it. If, like we have seen recently, production is also greatly reduced by COVID-19, an uneasy stalemate between supply and demand may last for a few months longer.

Our European importer source makes a gloomy prediction for the future, telling us that importers not already embedded in the retail market will have a hard time gaining entry, and that “one of the big questions we now have is: ‘Who is going to file for bankruptcy?’”

The UK: Because no man is an island

We also reached out to a UK-based retailer to find out how COVID-19 is impacting the market and their business. “Things have been tough here,” he told us. “As a country, we have been late to start social distancing, late to start mass testing and late to close the food service industry. There have been a lot of COVID-19 cases, and many deaths. The food service sector reopened at the beginning of July, but with very limited capacity. It’s likely that it’ll be a while before it manages to pick up again.”

Retail in the UK has been relatively good, though. Especially at the start of the pandemic when people were panic buying. For shrimp, simple frozen and ready-to-use products were in highest demand. This includes seafood mixes (frozen fruits de mer, for example, which includes shrimp) and value-added products such as prepared shrimp ramen. People also became more experimental and tried to prepare restaurant-style food at home.

“As this drags on, one of the challenges that we see coming is keeping up our production. As social distancing is still in effect, the way that we process our shrimp has had to adapt to a 1.5-metre society. We have even extended operational hours to evenings and weekends so that shifts can be split, distance maintained, and production continued.”

Another challenge, according to this importer, is the logistics of getting the raw materials into the country, and there have been customs delays associated with COVID-19 checks. Officials have been working tirelessly to smooth out this process and it’s already come a long way.

With the various challenges faced throughout the supply chain, some processors in the UK have already started packing for the Christmas rush to make sure they have the time (at 1.5-metres distance) to prepare for the holiday sales spike.

Sustainability, traceability and health in a COVID-led context

There has been a trend in recent times for European customers to give their business increasingly to companies that actively work towards sustainability – aiming to support the planet, their employees and their communities – and COVID-19 has sped up this process. With its origins in the retail sector of north-western Europe, this phenomenon has started to spread across the region and industry.

If we look at why this is the case in the current COVID climate, the pandemic has created an additional amount of uncertainty for the European (and global) consumer, which means that consumers are asking an increasing number of questions at the point of purchase, starting with “Where is the product from?”, and ending with “Can you prove it?” Being able to answer these questions (well) is becoming a hard entry requirement across retail and increasingly the food service sector. Consumers’ increased need to trust the products they buy and the retailers they buy them from is leading to higher demand for certified products that guarantee not only sustainable but also trustworthy, healthy and traceable products made under hygienic and safe conditions, and this trend is set to continue.

Front-runners in the seafood industry, those who have already been gearing their operations towards providing increasingly sustainable and traceable products (and who are marketing their products as such) may well find that COVID-19 brings new opportunities, not least the market share they could gain from sustainable positioning as demand moves increasingly in that direction. But there will also be some inevitable challenges: while demand for food service is slowly picking up, there may well be a long-term decrease in overall demand throughout the sector. Others in the industry, those not already “sustainably” positioned, may well find themselves playing catch up to those who were ahead of the game in the pre-COVID world, i.e. to those who had been supplying sustainable products with the necessary certification even before the COVID-19 pandemic saw a further increase in the demand for them.

The ShrimpTails Poll revealed another interesting fact: the health benefits associated with shrimp, maybe even more so than sustainability and traceability according to our respondents, are an important factor that could lead people to consume more shrimp. Of those polled, 71% believed that health benefits drive increased consumption, compared to only 59% who attributed increased consumption to sustainability and only 26% to traceability. Shrimpers who can position themselves as a healthy option – also in this context of more consumers (re)discovering home cooking – may well find this brings them new opportunities, even in this uncertain COVID-19 climate.

What does a post-COVID world look like for the shrimp industry in Europe?

COVID-19 has been felt across the industry from “farm to fork”; production has been reduced from “farm to factory”; logistics have been impacted, adding further complications to an already challenge-filled endeavour; and Europe’s appetite for shrimp has certainly been impacted… there’ll be no more stuffing up on garlic shrimp at my local all-you-can-eat buffet!

So with all of this considered, what should you expect in the near future? Well, it’s quite hard to predict, but we asked some industry professionals for their own perspectives on what they see happening. The main responses were:

1. Intensification of competition in all markets and categories

2. Heightened focus of consumers on health, sustainability and traceability

3. Long-term pressure on food service companies (and their suppliers)

4. Continued growth of (online) retail

They also shared their concerns about a potential second COVID-19 wave and/or an industry oversupply before market recovery, which could spell disaster for many in the industry.

What does all of this mean for you, whomever you are and whichever part of the seafood chain you work in? The experts we spoke to were in agreement on a few things and also provided some interesting and good advice we wanted to share with you here:

– Patience and stability are both important in this situation: looking for fast wins could mean longer term difficulties.

– Though European importers worry about a forthcoming oversupply, we already know that India and Ecuador are now reducing production, as the long-term impacts of COVID-19, and the projected production reduction, are yet to be seen.

– With challenges in trade, domestic sales (where possible) can serve to support the local economy.

– When talking “location, location, location”, anywhere on the World Wide Web will do: online sales are set to increase.

– Trust is needed: form strong relationships with your business partners.

– (Proof of) transparency is becoming a licence to do business: innovation and sustainability are at the forefront.

– Supply chains and markets/marketing will have to diversify and become more efficient.

– Creativity is key: be creative with both your products and how you communicate about – and market – them.

– People have been forced to rediscover cooking, so give them new recipes to try out at home – this may drive sales.

– Lastly, wear sunscreen, and though creativity is key, information is king. Keep your eye on the market and its recovery: observe how and why one or another product goes in and out of fashion.

Demand from the retail sector is improving with holiday preparations underway. However, the restaurant industry is still making slow steps at the moment. While the European food sector is slowly reopening, and tourism is beginning to restart – in particular for the coastal regions – it is important to stay vigilant, informed and aware. We are not out of the woods just yet, and COVID-19 presents a continued threat. In this time of great uncertainty, forecasts are hard to make, but we can always reduce risks by managing expectations and keeping abreast of developments.

Disclaimer: ShrimpTails is a product of Seafood Trade Intelligence Portal (STIP) and uses the stats, market analyses and network as the basis for all ShrimpTails articles.  STIP gives its members unbiased and actionable analysis of the current state of the shrimp and seafood industry. With the facts and figures we gather and our network of industry experts, we keep our members up-to-date with the rapidly fluctuating prices and import/export trends between major shrimp and seafood markets. Through weekly Price Portal Updates and monthly Trade Data Analysis, these analyses are delivered to members’ mailboxes, as they are published.

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All food images are credited to the ShrimpTails Team and North Western European COVID-CREATIVITY. 

 

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