The brown / edible / ‘pasty’ crab
By Steve Guilbert
Is there anything more evocative of the British seaside summer holiday than eating cod and chips on a windy, drizzly prom whilst fending off marauding seagulls and staring silently out to sea? Perhaps not. As Britain’s coastal hospitality sector gears up for what will be a much anticipated and welcome bumper season, its chippies and cafés can look forward to serving up portions of cod and chips by the million. Rather less likely to appear on many menu boards however, and somewhat less evocative than the paper wrapped, vinegar soaked classic is the uninspiringly named brown or ‘edible’ crab. This common crustacean, which is abundant in UK waters, is locally landed, sustainable, nutritious, and prized for its flavour on the continent and in Asia, yet remains largely unfavoured by UK consumers.
For the UK fishing sector however, particularly the inshore, small-scale sector, brown crab has emerged as an increasingly important and valuable fishery albeit one that has had to endure an extremely challenging few years as a succession of shocks have disrupted supply chains, tested the robustness of the sector, and forced innovation.
These shocks and their impact on Europe’s brown crab fishery have been examined and explored in a recently published and fascinating report from EUMOFA (European Market Observatory for Fisheries and Aquaculture Products) entitled ‘Brown Crab: COVID-19 impact on the supply chain’. Based on publicly available literature, research, news articles, available data, and interviews with stakeholders in Norway, the UK, Ireland, and France, the study aimed ‘to provide an understanding of the brown crab value chain and establish the status of the sector both prior to and during the COVID-19 pandemic’. It also aimed ‘to give insight into how stakeholders in brown crab catching nations were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and their course of action in dealing with the consequences’.
What follows below is an abridgement/summary of the EUMOFA report with a particular focus on the UK. To read the original report in full and to view associated references, tables and graphs please visit: https://eumofa.eu/market-analysis#thematic
Brown Crab and Brown Crab Fisheries
Brown or edible crab (Cancer pagurus) is a benthic (seafloor) dwelling species that commonly lives at a depth of between 6 and 40 metres. It is found in the Eastern Atlantic, from northern Morocco, to northern Norway but its stronghold is in and around the British Isles. Brown crabs have a heavy, oval shaped body and can easily be identified by their ‘piecrust’ edge and black-tipped pincers. The carapace (the hard upper shell of a crustacean) can reach a maximum length of 20 cm and a maximum width of 30 cm. They’re omnivorous and play an important role in keeping the seafloor free of organic debris, and can live for up to 30 years.
Brown crab is usually caught with baited traps, called pots. These pots have a low impact on the environment and are very selective, limiting the bycatch of other species. Brown crab fisheries, however, are not managed by quotas or a total allowable catch (TAC) which has raised a number sustainability concerns in fishery nations and the EU. In Ireland, for example, a fishery improvement project (FIP) has been created to increase the transparency and sustainability of the sector.
The Brown Crab Supply Chain
In 2019, the FAO reported a total global brown crab catch of 50.480 tonnes. The UK is by far the single largest catching nation, catching around 60% of total global volume of brown crab between 2015 and 2019. The next leading brown crab catching nation is Ireland, followed by Norway and France. Together, these four countries have accounted for roughly 94% of the catches since 2010. Catches of brown crab in the UK have increased by 27% between 2010 and 2019 and have increased sevenfold since 1950. In 2019 the UK caught 31.004 tonnes of brown crab.
Brown crab may be sold live, or the crab may be processed into products ranging from boiled whole and sold chilled or frozen, crab meat, or other value-added products. Live crabs are commonly transported either packed in Styrofoam boxes or in vivier tanks. Trucks are used for transportation between catch nations and other nations in Europe, while airfreight is used for exports to overseas markets, predominantly in Asia.
As crabs are highly perishable once killed, they must be boiled shortly after being euthanised. After boiling they can be chilled, frozen, or further processed. Following an initial cooking step, crabs are cleaned, cooled, and packaged. A second heating step is added for pasteurisation (typically 70 °C for 2 min for picked meat or 90 °C for 10 min for whole crab). The product may then be frozen or chilled.
Meat from brown crab is either white or brown. White meat originates from muscle tissue derived from the purse, claws, and legs, while brown meat is derived from the hepatopancreas and gonads inside the carapace. Crab meat may be sold in various combinations of white meat where the origin of the meat is specified (legs, claws, or purse) or as a mixture of all white meat. Crab meat may also be sold as pure brown meat, or as a combination of both brown and white meat. Crab meat may also be used as an ingredient in value-added products such as crab cakes, pates, or pastes
The UK is the largest exporter of brown crab both in volume and value, making up 68% of total export volume and 55% of total export value in 2020. France and Spain have traditionally been the largest export markets for UK brown crab. Exports to China started to grow in 2016, reaching a peak of 4.187 tonnes in 2018 when they surpassed exports to all other destinations. One year later, however, in 2019, exports to China dropped due to China’s tightening restrictions on brown crab imports (see below). The majority (63% in 2020) of British exports are live crab and fresh/chilled crab both with shell and without. Frozen crab, both whole and not in shell, made up 32% of British exports in 2020.
Although brown crab is the most consumed shellfish in the UK, total consumption is low compared to other countries. This may be due, the report suggests, to households in the UK typically not having ‘the knowledge to acquire, cook or prepare live and whole crab’ (with most at home consumption, for example, consisting of prepared/preserved crab e.g. crab meat, dressed crab, crab cakes, soups). Based on national catch and export statistics, the report infers that consumption of brown crab is highest in France, Spain, Portugal, and China. France, for example, where consumption of brown crab is seasonal with peak periods throughout June to December, is the main destination for brown crab exports by the major catch nations taking 38% of total export volume and 44% of total export value.
Market Changes and Challenges: The Triple Whammy
Cadmium and the Chinese Market
Cadmium is a nonessential heavy metal which can promote significant adverse health effects in humans and animals. It accumulates naturally in both the white and brown meat of brown crabs. The EU has an established maximum cadmium level for white meat for safe consumption at 0.5 mg/kg. China first banned brown crab imports in 2015, very shortly after the market had initially opened. The ban was lifted the following year but in 2019 China imposed increased control measures on the import of live brown crab. With the exception of crab caught and exported from the Netherlands, this significantly reduced market access to what was a growing and valuable market for all brown crab exporters.
While brown crab does contain cadmium, the stringency of the Chinese testing regime is subject to, what the report refers to as, ‘the political climate between trading countries’. The report also mentions, that interviewed stakeholders suggest that the high mortality rate of crabs during the testing period in China, which may take several days, leads to significant economic loss, and as such is a barrier for stakeholders interested in exporting brown crab to China.
Although the impact of COVID-19 was felt by all brown crab stakeholders, the report found that the effect differed depending on business model. Those who – despite the cadmium testing challenges – were still supplying China were hit hard and early by Covid, as New Year celebrations were cancelled and many provinces went into lockdown. Live and fresh crab exports to Asia were also impacted as passenger planes were grounded and the price of transport increased up to six fold.
In several countries, processors began offering products online and home delivery services to directly reach consumers. Processors who had diversified sales to both retail and HoReCa (Hotel, Restaurant, Café) were better equipped to keep up sales when one market disappeared, as opposed to those who only sold to the HoReCa sector. Many processors also had the advantage of being able to build inventory and postpone sales.
Stakeholders in the UK reported an increase in domestic sales during the pandemic period as customers cooked more at home and became more interested in locally produced species. In addition, several national communication campaigns promoted the purchase of domestic products, including shellfish.
Many fishers in the UK refrained from fishing crab as prices were too low to cover costs. To add to existing challenges, weather conditions also contributed to a poor fishing season. As a result UK landings of brown crab were down by 20% in 2020, compared to 2019.
In terms of UK exports, a significantly lower volume of crab was exported from the UK during the peak season from September to December 2020, 29% and 30% lower than the same period in 2019 and 2018, respectively. The value of exports at this time was 35% and 44% lower compared to the same period in 2019 and 2018, respectively. For the entirety of 2020, the volume of British exports was 28% lower than in 2019, while the export value decreased by 43%.
The single largest reduction in export volume was seen for brown crab destined for China, which was 72% lower in 2020 compared with 2019, falling from 4.072 tonnes to 1.134 tonnes. According to interviewed stakeholders this huge reduction is attributable to a likely combination of cadmium and Covid. Interestingly, the report notes that British exports of brown crab to the Netherlands increased by a massive 1045% from 2018 to 2020 and remarks that this could be a result either of the Netherlands continuing to function as a hub during the pandemic, or because it offers easier access to the Chinese market (see above).
On top of the challenges posed by Chinese cadmium testing issues and the Covid-19 pandemic, the UK brown crab sector faced its third existential challenge in the space of three years with Brexit and the end of the transition period in January 2021. The EUMOFA report found, based on interviewed stakeholders, that exports from the UK were experiencing delays of 36-48 hours on the border following the end of the transition period. With a live delicate product such as crab this was a very difficult situation to manage and many exporters refrained from exporting in this timeframe. Weeks later, while the situation had improved somewhat, significant delays were still being reported and the administrative burden remained high. Interestingly, such was the challenge of exporting to the EU, that interviewed stakeholders found it likely that should the cadmium issue be resolved and re-entry to the Chinese market become possible, exports would shift from Europe to China where prices are higher and the administrative burden lower.
The Pasty Crab?
For the post-Brexit UK brown crab sector the attraction of the potentially huge and valuable Chinese market is obvious, but, as things stand, the current cadmium testing restrictions make it largely unviable. So what about the domestic market? This is, potentially, huge as well, but getting more people in the UK eating edible crab poses its own particular challenges. The EUMOFA report, for example, suggests the greatest barrier in the UK to increased brown crab consumption, is ‘the availability of crab to the consumer as fishmongers are becoming scarcer and retailers are closing fresh fish counters’. That’s certainly a contributing factor, but so too is a lack of demand or appetite, whether due to a general absence of knowledge about how to prepare and cook a fresh crab or a more basic aversion to the look or sound of shellfish.
There may be however, some encouraging signs. The report notes that during the COVID-19 pandemic consumers became ‘more aware of the options available locally/domestically and, both in support of local businesses and to experiment with diverse ingredients in home cooking, the domestic purchase of crabs increased’. As with many other new Covid-19 food habits, whether this trend will continue is uncertain. Perhaps the way forward for the unfavoured and uninspiringly named brown/edible crab is a rebrand, as per the pilchard/Cornish sardine. Perhaps the Pasty Crab might tempt you away from your cod and chips. Perhaps not!