Circular economy

From Steel to Caviar

by Elena Comelli Il Sole 24 Ore | Updated on November 30, 2018 Published on October 27, 2017

Italian caviar producer offers model of integrated economy.

Based in a small town in northern Italy, Agroittica Lombarda is the largest producer of caviar in Italy and has achieved global success thanks to a model of integrated economy, which is regarded as an example of sustainability. In short, this is the success story of how wastewater from steel manufacturing has been used to facilitate the leading production of one of the world's most high-end foods: caviar.

It all started in the 1970s when Feralpi steelworks teamed up with a Californian biologist to find a solution to the huge amounts of water and heat that were being wasted during the steel manufacturing process. The answer lay in fish farming. In Calisano, a small town less than 30 kilometers from Brescia, Agroittica Lombarda began breeding eels in the 1970s and moved on to sturgeon in the 1980s. The farm uses the surplus heat from the Feralpi plant to keep what has grown to over 60 hectares of pools, containing 500,000 Pacific sturgeon, at optimum temperatures.

Italy has a tradition of fine food but it was Agroittica Lombarda who began the country's reputation for the production of caviar, selling predominantly under the brand name Calvisius. The world's most prized caviar comes from wild sturgeon in the Caspian Sea, but in 1998, under Cites, the international convention to protect endangered species, fishing of the Caspian sturgeon was restricted and later banned outright, in 2010. In 1978 there were 140 million fish living in the Pacific Ocean, but by 2001 this number had already decreased considerably; “This definitely encouraged the era of farmed caviar,” said marketing director, Stefano Bottoli. Agroittica Lombarda, was well positioned, as the first sturgeon farmers in Europe, when the global caviar market shifted to farm fishing.

Agroittica Lombarda is now one of the world's largest caviar producers, with over 24 tons per year, of which more than 20 tons are exported abroad, covering 30 percent of the total caviar consumption. This is double the combined export of the two leading countries in the global production of caviar, Russia and Iran, who exceed no more than 10 tons a year.

This Brescian caviar is produced under four different quality categories, from the classic top-level Calvisius to Caviar de Venise; plus Oscietra Classic and Royal, which is limited to Italy. Agroittica Lombarda sells its caviar under different labels to different market segments, with the Caviar Club brand targeting a wider market via supermarkets. The company is flying high with its premium Calvisius though, as they are the exclusive supplier of Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines, and export more than 90 percent of its production to Germany, France, and the United States.

This successful business model runs on energy recovery, with the farm using the plant's energy to heat up rearing facilities, while the plant is refrigerated by the farm's water so that both of them save on energy costs. It is also an example of how high profits can be generated through a focus on sustainability. The caviar produced at Agroittica Lombarda is farmed from an eco-friendly environment. Since the 1970s, many sturgeon have already disappeared from the waters of the Po River, where they were once abundant. “Sturgeon are prehistoric animals, they have existed for 250 million years, but are very sensitive to pollution and when a certain threshold is exceeded, they cease to exist,” explained Bottoli. By breeding these fish, Agroittica Lombarda is helping to protect the stock and, as a result, has received certification from Friend of the Sea, an international organization that promotes sustainable fishing.

As one of the world's biggest sturgeon breeding farms, they feature up to 6 sturgeon species: white sturgeons from North America, the Adriatic and Siberia as well as the belugas that produce the largest eggs that made Caspian caviar famous. The sturgeon are kept healthy in fresh spring water and are constantly monitored by biologists.

“The caviar cycle is extremely long and complex: the sex of sturgeon can only be determined when they reach 5-6 years old and at this point, the males are slaughtered for their meat, while the females take at least another 6 years before they start to produce eggs”, explains Bottoli. A heat exchanger takes advantage of the high temperatures of the steelworks to keep the nursery above 20 degrees, and the other pools are maintained at around 16-18 degrees. The timing of the extraction of the eggs (20 kilograms per fish) is established through the constant ultrasound monitoring of the females, who are all equipped with a microchip. “This way, we ensure that we do not slaughter the fish before the point of maturity, which for wild sturgeon is not possible”, notes Bottoli.

Some of the fish can exceed three meters in length and 500 kilograms in weight. Nothing is thrown away: the meat is eaten and the skin is turned into belts. “Apart from sturgeon meat, we are looking into the possibility of marketing the fish's cartilage, skin, and oil for use in cosmetics and regenerative medicine”. Lelio Mondella, director of Agroittica Lombarda, said. “We're trying to build a second era, which is that of Italian caviar."

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Published on October 27, 2017
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