Snails

24.05.17

Escargot — cleaned and prepared snails — have been eaten by humans for thousands of years. In modern food culture, they are consumed by millions of people around the world and while they are gaining popularity in some ‘high-end’ restaurants, there is a view that snails are an underutilised food source in Australia.

Overview

The snail species Helix aspersa underpins Australia’s commercial edible snail production. Also known as Cantareus asperses, this snail was first described in Italy in 1774. Commonly known in Australia as the ‘common brown garden snail’ or ‘petit-gris’ (meaning little grey), H. aspersa is a herbivorous, terrestrial snail. It is thought to have been introduced into Australia in the 1890s and is one of the most popular snails eaten in France, Italy and other European countries. It is the only snail allowed for farming in Australia and the importation of other species of snail is prohibited under Australia’s quarantine laws.

In Australia, snails are raised in enclosed pens or crates to protect them from predators. Traditionally, there are two types of snail farming, free-range and intensive. Free-range involves raising snails in an enclosure that is open to the environment, however, in Australia the prevalence of predators is considered one of the major reasons this style of snail farming has not succeeded. The most successful snail farming in Australia has been in crates or small pens that are fully enclosed.

Snails are relatively easy to grow, do not require much space, and with the potential increase in demand, may provide an attractive diversification option. However, it should be noted that the market for snails is underdeveloped and tends to be confined to production areas where relationships between growers and restaurateurs have been established. Therefore thorough research on potential market opportunities should be undertaken prior to the establishment of a snail farm. It should also be noted that in Australia farmers may also need to prepare the snail meat for sale, so facilities may be needed that meet the comprehensive range of food safety requirements as specified by the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code.

Facts and figures

  • Snails (escargot) have been eaten by humans for thousands of years
  • There is a view that snails are underutilised as a food source in Australia
  • The Helix aspersa, or common brown garden snail, underpins Australia’s edible snail production
  • Snails are raised in enclosed pens to protect them from predators
  • The market for snails is not well developed and it is considered a cottage industry, therefore market research is essential prior to establishment of new farms
  • Snails can be processed on-farm or sold live direct to restaurants and consumers
  • Thousands of tonnes of canned snails are imported into Australia each year representing a barrier to growing the industry locally

Production status

There are snail farms located in most states of Australia providing fresh snails to the domestic market (as well as some small-scale export activity). Many industry participants consider snails a cottage industry, however demand is rising and in some areas, demand outstrips supply.

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Map of current and potential growing regions

Uses

Snails are raised for and consumed predominantly at ‘high end’ restaurants that offer ‘modern cuisine’ or traditional ethnic food, particularly Italian, Greek, French and other European restaurants. To a lesser extent, snails are sought by consumers at providores/delicatessens and farmers’ markets; and by catering and special events companies.

Snails are used in a large range of dishes, from appetisers, where the snail is cooked in butter, garlic, wine and herbs, through to soups, salads and pies. Snail meat may also be used as a pet food for reptiles and the shells provide a useful calcium additive to poultry feed.

Production Requirements

Growing regions

Snails can adapt to a range of environments but are not suited to production in tropical or desert regions. Snail farms have been indentified in the Hunter Valley region of New South Wales; Gippsland and the Yarra Valley in Victoria; the Sunshine Coast in Queensland; southern Tasmania and south of Perth in Western Australia.

Climate

The common brown garden snail adapts well to cooler regions, up to 750m above sea level, including the temperate regions of Australia with a yearly temperature range of minimum –4°C to a maximum of 30°C. Snails can endure frost and snow if given adequate shelter, however their metabolism will slow down considerably. As part of their natural cycle, snails will enter a dormancy period during extreme cold or heat.

Housing

Snails need to be housed in enclosures to prevent them from escaping and protect them from predators. These enclosures are usually either pens in sheds or in open space, and are constructed from a range of materials including timber, colourbond metal, shadecloth or some plastics.

The recommended density of snails for the growing area is between 250-350 snails per square meter. Overcrowding will inhibit and slow down the growth rate of the snails and also cause health problems. Snails require a moist environment so it is essential that pen design and construction includes a system for keeping the pens moist.

Enclosures should have good drainage and provide protection from prevailing winds. The construction of free-range pens needs extra care and their pens should be fully enclosed to prevent predators gaining access. Detailed information outlining the housing requirements for snails is included in the publications Breeding and Growing Snails Commercially in Australia and Free-range Snail Farming in Australia.

Feed requirements

A snail will consume a large quantity of food — up to 40% of its total weight within a 24 hour period, especially when it is active. As a general guide, approximately 100 grams of food per 400 snails is required.

Snails require easy access to fresh food and moisture. Snails’ dietary requirements include protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals including extra calcium for shell development. These requirements are generally supplied completely through food such as poultry laying mash and vegetables with a high water content.

Along with suitable fresh food, dry feed such as poultry laying mash, crushed corn, bran, oats and full-fat soy mixture, should be added to supplement fresh food, if necessary. It is important to ensure that snails bred for human consumption are not fed a formula that contains antibiotics or any added chemicals.

Snails need water for hydration and to keep them active (eating, breeding and growing). If growing intensively, snails need to be supplied with fresh water on a daily basis and regular misting of the snail enclosures will be required.

Breeds and breeding

The correct selection of strains of snails is critical to the success of the breeding program at the farm, however no genetic selection or improvement programs for snails exist at an industry level. Common practice is to select the largest mature snails for breeding, as a large sized snail is the preferred characteristic for a commercial product.

Once collected, the breeding snails are placed in a separate breeding area where they will stay for approximately three weeks to copulate and lay eggs. The breeding area usually consists of a plastic container filled to a depth of 7cm with a top quality potting mix or fine river sand, which should be kept moist but not wet.

Snails are hermaphrodites and although they have both male and female reproductive organs, they must mate with another snail of the same species before they lay eggs. Most of the snails will mate during the night and this process can take from between 3 to 15 hours. In order to lay its eggs the snail will dig a hole and burrow to a depth of between 4–9cm deep. It then deposits its eggs and leaves.

The eggs are spherical and translucent, white in colour and have a diameter of between 3–4mm. The snail lays its eggs in batches, and the number can range from 40 to 130, with the average being around 70–90 eggs. Depending on soil temperature, soil humidity and soil composition, the baby snails, which are very small but fully formed, emerge within 18–21 days (longer if temperatures are 15°C or below). Snails are kept in a nursery for two months, before being moved into the growing area.

Sourcing stock

Initial stock can be sourced from other growers or from the wild; including horticultural enterprises, parks and gardens. The most suitable time for collection is during moist conditions, particularly during or after rain events. Spring will provide the best conditions for collecting snails as temperatures are increasing and snails become active after winter. Also, new plant growth will attract snails and their need to mate will make them more active and therefore visible.

The snails collected should be the largest ones available as they can be selected for the breeding program but can also be prepared for immediate sale. It is critical however, that the collected snails are quarantined for a minimum of 30 days to ensure that any contaminants or toxins that they may have ingested prior to collection are expelled from their systems.

Health care & pests and diseases

A variety of diseases will affect the snails’ ability to breed successfully so it is very important to decrease the chances for any pest or disease to occur within the area designated for reproduction. A constant flow of fresh air within the snails’ environment will assist with keeping the occurrence of pests and diseases to a minimum.

Hygiene within the breeding greenhouse must be maintained to the highest standards and regular cleaning programs should be implemented and carried out as part of the ongoing management program.

The main threat to snails is predators, which include rodents such as rats, mice, birds, frogs and reptiles such as lizards. For this reason, snail pens should be fully enclosed.

Some beetles and centipedes can also be a threat to snails (especially carnivorous beetles such as Carabids and Staphylinids) that attack and kill small snails. These beetles live in the soil and enjoy the same moist environment as the snails.

Infrastructure Requirements

A snail farm does not require large amounts of land or machinery, but as snails are grown for human consumption and can be processed on-farm, modern infrastructure may be needed to comply with the comprehensive range of food safety requirements.

Snails are either grown in crates or pens in climate-controlled environments (like sheds) or in fully enclosed pens in the open environment (for example enclosed with shadecloth). Detailed information on the infrastructure needed to breed and raise snails can be found in the publications Breeding and Growing Snails Commercially in Australia and Free-range Snail Farming in Australia.

If processing snails on-farm for sale, the facilities required will generally comprise of a cool-room and stainless steel processing areas. The processing area will need to be built and outfitted consistent with the requirements under the Australian Standard for the Construction and Fit out of Food Premises.

Snails can also be sold live direct to buyers and in this case, these food processing facilities may not be required.

Harvesting & Processing

Snails are ready for harvesting when they reach a minimum size of 3cm shell diameter and a weight of 8g, which constitutes the minimum eating size. Snails can be sold live or processed on-farm.

Snails must have their digestive tracts purged before they are ready for processing, which will eliminate any grittiness from the snail meat. There are a number of methods commonly used including depriving them of food or placing them in boxes with water only. Purging the snails generally takes about a week.

Detailed explanations of how to process snail meat for sale can be found in the publications Breeding and Growing Snails Commercially in Australia and Free-range Snail Farming in Australia.

Markets & Marketing

In 2010, market surveys identified that the key target market for fresh snails in Australia is ‘high-end’ restaurants that have innovative chefs who prefer to serve quality, local, Australian produce.

However, the market is also broken up into smaller sub-markets including:

  • other restaurants that offer ‘modern cuisine’
  • restaurants offering international cuisines such as Italian, Greek, French and other European tastes
  • providores/delicatessens
  • farmers’ markets
  • private catering companies special events/festivals/corporate companies
  • individuals who enjoy eating snails
  • pet food market

Snails can be sold live or processed on-farm. Selling live snails has the economic advantage of reducing costs as preparation rooms and infrastructure will not be required, however, processing on-farm can provide an additional market for sales.

It is critical for any prospective new entrant to the market to undertake their own investigation to determine local demand for the product. In many instances, securing firm commitments from customers before commencing would be advantageous.

Risks & Regulations

Risks/challenges

Snails are relatively easy to grow, do not require much space and with the potential increase in demand, may provide an attractive diversification option. However, it should be noted that the market for snails is underdeveloped and tends to be localised to production areas where relationships between growers and restaurateurs have been established. Therefore researching potential market opportunities should be undertaken prior to the establishment of a snail farm (see also Markets &marketing section).

In Australia, the biggest risk to commercial snail farming is predators. Fully enclosed pens are essential to maintain sufficient volumes for commercial production.

Potential snail farmers should be aware of health risks, especially those people with a weakened immune system or who have a history of respiratory or lung diseases. The use of potting mix and compost mulches has been associated with legionnaire’s disease, a respiratory infection that in susceptible individuals, such as the elderly and those with particular respiratory conditions, can prove life threatening.

Regulatory considerations

Snails sold for human consumption will require compliance with all food safety and handling laws. Detailed information on Australian standards is available from Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ).

To prepare live snails for sale the processing area will generally comprise of a cool-room and stainless steel processing, cooking and packing areas. They will need to be built and outfitted consistent with the requirements under the Australian Standard for the Construction and Fit out of Food Premises.

Industry Bodies

There is no industry body for snail farming in Australia.

Image Gallery

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Housing and enclosures for farmed snails (source Glasshouse Gourmet Snails)

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Housing for farming snails (source Glasshouse Gourmet Snails)

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Enclosure of farmed snails (source Glasshouse Gourmet Snails)

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Snails feeding on fresh vegetables (source Glasshouse Gourmet Snails)