After China turned it into a cheap snack, Americans hope to make caviar great again
It was a 1980s Wall Street cliche. Tiny pancakes, huge egos and gobs of glossy black fish eggs from the Caspian Sea hoovered up on little mother-of-pearl spoons. Beluga, osetra and sevruga - most Americans had no idea these were species of sturgeon, but it was clear eating a whole lot of salted, unfertilized roe was a signal that you had arrived.
Fast-forward to 2019, and caviar's image is muddier. Cheap Chinese caviar is flooding the U.S. market, causing prices to plummet, and with it, the product's cachet. Wholesale prices have fallen more than 50 percent since 2012, down 13 percent just in the past year. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, the import price has gone from $850,000 per ton in January 2012 to $350,000 per ton in November 2018.
You can get caviar on tater tots in New York, on a burrito in the District. The NBA now has its own caviar line (the Lakers, Nets, Heat, Knicks, Rockets and Golden State Warriors all have their own cute little tins) and hopes to have it available to fans in arenas soon, right alongside hot dogs and nachos.
A generation ago, Americans looked to the foods of the Old World for status signalers. Fancy food was dominated by imports: foie gras and truffles, a first-growth Bordeaux down to an icy bottle of Heineken. Baby boomers identified with the champagne wishes and caviar dreams of "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous."
But there's little evidence millennials or Gen Z has any connection to fish eggs outside tobiko on a California roll. Younger generations favor indulgences that play up their local and sustainable credentials. When it comes to caviar, however, producers have struggled to find customers who will pay top dollar for a made-in-the-USA premium product.
In its heyday, the Caspian Sea trade was controlled by its border countries, the Soviet Union and Iran, but after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the world's largest saltwater lake was woefully overfished. Species like the beluga became critically endangered, and in 2005 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service banned its importation.
Since then, the United States has repeatedly, and largely unsuccessfully, attempted to farm caviar domestically, mostly the lesser white sturgeon species. Meanwhile, China has emerged as dominant: China exported more than 130 metric tons of caviar in 2017; the United States produced just under 16 metric tons. The U.S. imported $7 million in Chinese caviar in 2017, a number that has quintupled since 2012.
- - -
One man, the Russian-born Mark Zaslavsky, aims to capitalize on our recent fetishization of domestic, farm-to-table foods while bringing caviar's prestige back.
In north Florida near the Alabama border, he has 21,000 of what he calls "real Caspian beluga sturgeon," the original 100 brought over as brood stock on 13 flights from Europe in 2003 before the import ban. He says he would have gone to market last fall with his caviar had Hurricane Michael not swept through his 120 acres of scrubland, trashing tanks and killing electricity and fish. He will try again this fall to bring American-made beluga, as well as sevruga, sterlet, Russian osetra and Siberian, to market.
"Why not make America No. 1 in the world producing beluga caviar? It's the best, most desirable product in the world. Better than truffles," Zaslavsky said in an interview.
It's going to be an uphill battle.
Shaoching Bishop is the president of Regiis Ova in Yountville, Calif. She started the caviar company with Thomas Keller of French Laundry and Per Se fame. She had hoped to source a domestic product for his restaurants. But she says the Food and Drug Administration's stringent rules for the U.S. aquaculture industry, from high water-quality standards to restrictions of growth hormones and the use of parasiticides, render domestic farms less competitive.
The FDA said that FDA-regulated products imported into the United States must comply with the same FDA laws and regulations that apply to domestic products.
"I spent eight years promoting U.S. caviar, and now I'm ironically buying Chinese caviar, as is every single distributor in the U.S.," Bishop says. "Domestic companies are not going to make it given FDA rules and restrictions. Everyone is bitter about Chinese [caviar] being so cheap. I've been visiting them every year. No, they are not selling below their cost. It's just cheap, labor is cheap."
Many domestic producers had hoped the Trump administration's decision to slap 10 percent tariffs on Chinese seafood last year would help American caviar producers, but Bishop says U.S. companies still aren't profitable.
"They will tell you yes, but I know for sure no," she says.
"Will additional tariffs on Chinese give the U.S. a fighting chance? I personally doubt it. Every Michelin-starred restaurant has been using Chinese caviar for the past five years. The quality is so good, so consistent. "
She points to another troubling development among domestic distributors: fraud.
In 2015, a study in the Journal of Applied Ichthyology found that just 10 out of 27 caviar samples were properly labeled. Many claimed to be sturgeon but were actually other species, and several had no animal DNA at all.
Christopher Cogan tried to prove caviar fraud.
He was part of a private equity company that bought Mote Marine Laboratory's sturgeon and caviar operation in Sarasota, Fla., several years ago and then sold it in 2016, only for it to go belly up within months of the sale.
"We caught people using our labels, and we found out it wasn't our caviar. We took it and had it tested and proved that it was not our caviar. Nice hotels and restaurants are being duped by unscrupulous distributors," Cogan said.
In recent years, there have been arrests for illegal caviar poaching, smuggling, unlawful importation, selling on the black market and illegal substitution.
And there are reasons these substitutions should worry consumers.
Many companies in China still use borax as a food preservative - even though it is banned in the United States, China and other countries, says Jim Michaels, who owns Aquaculture Consulting Services.
"Borax is a fantastic shelf-life extender," he says, adding that its presence in imports has gone largely undetected. "It's under the radar screen for the FDA because it's small potatoes. " FDA officials did not respond to requests for comment about the prevalence of the banned substance in caviar imports.
- - -
In the wild, beluga take more than 20 years to reach sexual maturity and may live 100 years and weigh two tons (a roe sack is about 10 percent of the fish's weight). With a price tag of $5,000 per kilo, Zaslavsky aims to debut two tons of his product in October.
"There is a caviar for every price point," Zaslavsky says. He is convinced, so much so that he says he's spent $15 million on the project so far.
"There is a market for hybrid caviar from China, for domestic white sturgeon, there's a market for paddlefish and hackleback. The U.S. used to be the No. 1 consumer of beluga caviar, used to import 60 tons from Russia, 30 percent of it beluga. Beluga was consumed by the elite. "
The question remains whether high-end caviar will resonate with today's elite the same way. Zaslavsky is putting a lot of eggs in that basket.
This is article was written by Laura Reiley, a reporter for The Washington Post.