Evergreen Conglomerate, one of China’s largest seafood companies, is selling more preprepared,ready-to-eat and cook-at-home seafood products in China, as it aims for growthin the pandemic year.

The firm — which is headquartered in Guangdong province — told Undercurrent News its response reflects changes in consumer behavior, which have been accelerated by the pandemic.

Thanks to this strategic focus, Evergreen expects its seafood sales to grow 8% this year to CNY 3.93 billion ($598m), bucking a wider trend.

“The structural change of consumption has accelerated because of the pandemic,” Samantha Xie, director of Evergreen’s international department, told Undercurrent. “[But] Evergreen rapidly adjusted its strategy to meet the new market situation and launchednew products that have been well-received by consumers.”

Conversely, despite keeping a lid on COVID-19 after its initial outbreak in Wuhan, China’s seafood industry has been among the worst hit. Consumer confidence has been dented by frequent reports of imported seafood packages being contaminated with the virus, and outbreaks of COVID-19 at seafood wholesale markets.

Therefore, despite a return to normal daily life in many places as early as March, Evergreen thinks Chinese seafood consumption will fall this year, while seafood imports will also contract, reversing recent years of rapid growth.

Its response has been to focus on its executive slogan “3R Seafood”; ready-to-eat, ready-to-cook, ready-to-heat, ie products that respondto food safety concerns and changing consumer behavior.

“The one point in common is that people care about food safety more than ever before,” said Xie. It is catering for more in-home cooking and retail sales, producing more pre-cooked crawfish, fish fillets and pickled fish, as well as ready-to-eat fish tofu and fish sausage sticks, made from pollock-based surimi. Its focus also benefits from trends that were already underway but have accelerated, such as the declining popularity of open-air seafood wet markets.

“Market statistics show that raw products such as frozen whole round fish are becoming less popular than before. By comparison, end-consumer pre-cooked products such as pickled fish, crawfish tail and fish balls are nowadays popular seafood products in the local stores,” said Xie.

Evergreen’s hot-pot premixes, for instance, are made with pickled fish — typically pangasius — in a mixture of spices and sauce, and come in plastic pouch sold in a box at retail and online. Sales of hot pot mixes soared when restaurants closed earlier this year, as consumers sought to enjoy the restaurant feel at home. The firm expects some of these consumer choices will stick even as China’s economy returns to growth.

“People want to eat traditional Chinese dishes at home but without making it all themselves. Also, many young people nowadays don’t know how to cook,” said Xie.

Another dish, Evergreen’s scallops with soy sauce dish, which comes with soybean oil, a soup mix, pepper, ginger, garlic and shallots, illustrates how Chinese consumers have embraced prepared meals.

Packaged pre-cooked in a punnet, the dish can be heated in a microwave. Younger Chinese are more open to eating prepared dishes that look and taste like traditional Chinese food, said Xie.

“Fewer people were going to the restaurants because of the panic of the pandemic. So, we produced more frozen seafood products in retail packs and easy-to-cook style,” she said.

Restaurant chains also want more easy-to-prepare seafood; most Chinese high-speed railway stations have at least one or two places to eat squid and fish noodles. “[They] also prefer pre-cooked material for cooking efficiency and standards,” said Xie.

Evergreen’s seafood branding includes a man carrying a basket of fish on his shoulder with a wooden ship with sails in the background. She said this helps people “have the feeling of being near the sea”.

Shrimp remains the most popular-selling item in China despite links to contaminated packages; Evergreen’s sales of frozen shrimp are higher this year than last, said Xie.

Evergreen’s range of “3R Seafood” products has helped cushion the blow of the pandemic in China. However, exports have been worse hit; Evergreen is one of China’s largest processors of tilapia fillets that are exported globally. “Our export markets are greatly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. So our major sales direction is changing from the overseas market to the domestic market,” said Xie.

Aquaculture producers in southern China often grow species popular for exports — such as farmed tilapia — so many have cut down their household budgets, she said. “Their farming willingness will need time to recover.”

The hope is for a quick return to more normal times. “We believe it [contamination fears in China] is only acting on a psychological level that will not last too long. We also notice the recovery of the catering and tourism industry across the country [China] after the pandemic is mostly controlled.”

“But the overseas pandemic situation is still ongoing. So it’s still early to anticipate the overall impact of the pandemic. But, Evergreen is still very confident in the seafood industry, and we believe the bright future will come sooner or later.”