ELLSWORTH — Trade wars can make for strange bedfellows, but few pairings would seem stranger than Maine’s lobster industry and Food Export USA-Northeast, a nonprofit group that works with the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry and nine other state agriculture departments throughout the Northeast to promote the export of “food and agricultural products” from the region.
Strange or not, earlier this month the organization announced that it had received $20 million in funding from the federal Agricultural Trade Promotion Program and that it planned to use “a significant portion” of those funds to help boost exports by New England seafood suppliers. No surprise, the effort, and funding, will be spread “over the next few years.”
According to Tim Hamilton, Food Export USA-Northeast’s executive director, over the next few years the organization will have a “special focus” on opening new overseas markets for the U.S. lobster industry — primarily based in Maine.
This month, Food Export USA-Northeast will be at the Taiwan Internaional Fisheries & Seafood Show “promoting lobster … and capturing potential buyer leads for the industry.”
In October, FEN will lead a Northeast seafood trade mission to Dubai that will give Northeast seafood suppliers a chance to meet face to face with buyers from countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman. According to Hamilton, at least one Maine lobster dealer is already seeking buyers in the region.
“It’s a great market,” Hamilton said. “There’s a lot of money there.”
Though it may not be a familiar name to members of the seafood industry, Food Export USA-Northeast and its sister organization, which is focused on 10 Midwest states, has been around since the 1970s. Initially, it was established as a cooperative effort between the state agricultural promotion agencies and the federal Agriculture Department’s Foreign Agriculture Service.
According to Hamilton, the program already has established “great synergy” with many of the largest exporters of Maine lobster. He named the giant East Coast Seafood Group, which includes Garbo Lobster and Maine Fair Trade Lobster, Greenhead Lobster in Stonington, Ready Seafood Co., Cozy Harbor Seafood and Shucks Maine Lobster, all of them active in the export market and virtually all of them hurt by China’s imposition of retaliatory tariffs on “American lobster.”
Hamilton said Food Export USA-Northeast would be engaged in “generic promotion of American lobster” in countries including Italy, France, Indonesia and in Hong Kong, where lobster is already an important seafood import.
“We want to work with retail stores, restaurants” and other potential lobster buyers.
The organization also aims to expand exports of oysters from the United States, but at least initially the effort will be aimed at introducing potential buyers from diverse markets including the Netherlands, Germany, France, Hong Kong, Ukraine, China and Canada to oysters grown in southern New England. Maine growers may be added to the marketing effort in the future.
Currently, Hamilton said, narrow agreements allow exports of shellfish from Massachusetts and the State of Washington into the European Union. The organization is “hoping” the United States and the EU will reach a broader trade agreement that would allow increased imports of American oysters.
Aside from the current trade climate, one factor limiting exports of U.S. shellfish to the EU is a difference in how authorities test for food safety.
“They test the animals, we test the water” where the shellfish are grown to ensure that they are free of potential disease-causing pathogens.
If such an agreement were reached, Hamilton said, “in light of all this gloom and doom in trade, it would be a great story.”