Belfast Telegraph

From Rathlin to Japan: Ocean Veg Ireland Ltd wins export award

Rathlin Island-based Ocean Veg Ireland Ltd has won the “first time international exporter” category in the International Export Challenge

Kelp sways gently under the sea and (left) a plate of the seaweed much prized in Japanese restaurants
Kelp sways gently under the sea and (left) a plate of the seaweed much prized in Japanese restaurants

By Clare Weir

A County Antrim family food firm is helping to capitalise on the huge global seaweed market, which remains damaged by jitters over the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Rathlin Island-based Ocean Veg Ireland Ltd, which won the “first time international exporter” category in the International Export Challenge run by Invest Northern Ireland and British Airways, is now targeting markets in China, Japan and Korea.

The firm’s products include noodle-cut and salad-cut kelp for use in soups, stir fries, salads or as a wrap, garnish or an ingredient.

There is even a kelp pesto.

The Asian market is a prime user of seaweed, particularly China, Japan and Korea. Chinese production is more than four million tonnes per year but in Japan, the Fukishima leak has closed down large production areas.

In the US, supply in the west coast has also been badly affected by the nuclear accident.

Ocean Veg is run by Benji McFaul and mum Kate Burns, from a fourth-generation fishing family. Ms Burns said that after winnning their category of the International Export Challenge, they flew to Japan to meet prospective clients, courtesy of prize sponsors BA.

“We understand that Japanese high-end buyers will pay a premium price for quality kelp,” she said.

“The market for dried seaweed has been declining for the past five or six years and the market for fresh and frozen has risen.

“We have developed a four-week shelf-life vacuum-packed chilled product, a two-week shelf-life product and a one-year shelf-life frozen product.

“We do fresh kelp noodles, which are ready to use, and pre-cooked kelp products.

“There is a shortage of kelp in the international market place, no one else in the UK or Ireland is producing these kinds of products, nor, as far as we tell, is anyone else in Europe.”

And it’s not just the premium product that buyers are interested in.

“Since returning we have one particular lead on the food market side of things and on the by-product side, we are in discussions with another company,” said Ms Burns.

“The food market only uses a small part of the plant and essentially the rest goes to waste — but we are learning that there is a market for every part of the plant.”

Outside of Asia, the company is in discussions with a buyer from the west coast of the USA and is making links with firms in London.

“We have a good buyer in the wings, a large company which manufactures stock from kelp.

“The next stage is looking at logistics and shipping.”

Ms Burns said that while the Japanese do not like to talk about the Fukushima disaster, there are understandable concerns in the global market.

“While some people say it has not impacted on the seaweed market, there is still some nervousness about Japanese product,” she said.

“Equally, in China, there are concerns about heavy metal contamination.

“Kelp is growing in popularity as a health product and as a way of reducing sodium intake in diets.”

She added: “We have been told that our products are top grade and as good as kelp gets.

“Our growing conditions are nearly year-round and the kelp is pristine, some of the clients were blown away by the fact that our kelp had grown to two metres in just 13 weeks.”

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