With their slippery scales and staring eyes, fish are often avoided by squeamish consumers. Lorraine Mullaney seeks packaging solutions
Over-fishing, fish stocks on the move and disputes over who's catching what in the north east Atlantic led the Marine Conservation Society (MSC) to remove mackerel from its 'Fish to Eat' list last month. The oily fish is no longer sustainable.
The MSC advises shoppers to diversify their choices and to be less reliant on the 'Big Five': cod, haddock, tuna, salmon and prawns. But consumers are often loath to try unfamiliar species of fish. In fact, they can be pretty shy of the fish counter in general.
This led Martin Postler of London design agency Postler Ferguson to create a new fresh fish-packaging concept (pictured) to dress-up the new and unfamiliar scaly creatures appearing at the premium fish counter.
Postler's idea was to create an eye-catching pack to promote less familiar varieties of fish, such as gurnard and skate, in store. Made from double-layered polyethylene, the packs are airtight, resealable for convenience and can be filled with ice to keep the fish fresh during transportation. They also stand-up, which keeps any liquids safely at the bottom of the pack rather than leaking out of the top.
Postler said: "This helps put fish that are less familiar and, sometimes, plain uglier on an equal standing with their more recognised brethren by placing them in a recognisable pack.
"It gives fish that we should be eating a bigger presence in stores and provides a practical and attractive pack to take them home in."
Postler designed the concept in August 2012 and is now pitching it to packaging firms and high-end retailers. He wants to work with them to "rethink and redesign their packaging solutions".
It may be a revolutionary concept, but whether it will revolutionise sales at fresh fish counters is another matter.
UK retail seafood sales have been in overall decline since 2009, which Mintel attributes to the downturn and rising prices driving consumers to consume competing products.
However, value sales grew by 16% to reach an estimated £3.2bn in 2012, compared with an overall 5% decline in volume sales to 389,000t.
Within this context, chilled fish was the only sector to grow in both value and volume terms between 2007 and 2012 and was expected to reach 156,000t and £1.8bn in 2012.
Mintel predicts growth opportunities in hitting the convenience trend. In the under-35 category, consumers have the largest fresh and frozen ready-to-cook and ready-to-eat seafood repertoires. The number of 25- to 34-year-olds is set to rise by 9% from 2012 to 2017. Meanwhile, smaller households are set to grow by 6% and the retired population by 11%. The over-45s show greater than average interest in higher/added value options such as high-quality British ingredients and high animal welfare.
So there is money in sustainable fish as long as it comes in smaller portions and, most importantly, in a convenient format that caters for the squeamish.
Sourcing sustainable fish is one thing, communicating the fact that you've done so to customers is another. Retailers want on-pack labels that can trace the origin of the fish all along the supply chain with criteria including the ocean of origin, catch method, date received and even the registration plate of the vehicle that delivered it. That's a lot of data to manage when you're processing and packing thousands of units of fish for retailers a day.
To meet this challenge, Seachill installed Systems Integration's Integreater software system at its Grimsby site, from where it supplies Waitrose, Tesco, Morrisons, Sainsbury and Asda with fresh and frozen fish.
Seachill technical systems manager, Angela Simpson, says: "100% traceability is essential in order to meet the requirements set by retailers, the government and the best practice schemes we are affiliated to."
Integreater gives each product that enters the factory an individual code called a 'run marker'. It records and measures data electronically, which enables a product's journey to be traced from its ocean of origin to the supermarket shelf. This enables potential problems to be identified and rectified at the earliest possible stage.
"Failure to weigh and label each product in an accurate and timely manner can be devastating and may ultimately lead to an emergency product recall, fines, damaged customer relationships and bad press," says Simpson.
Cutting-edge labellers can be integrated with portioning and weighing systems, enabling processors to produce more accurate fixed-weight portions and display a fixed price on pack. Customers can pick a product off the shelf and throw it straight into their shopping basket knowing exactly how much it's going to cost. No need to negotiate with another perceived barrier to consumption: the fish counter.
Morrisons' fisheries and aquaculture manager, Huw Thomas, says: "Buying a whole fish from the counter can be daunting and time-consuming for customers who don't know how much weight to buy. Pre-portioned fish takes this concern away, while giving cash-conscious customers an immediate idea of how much they can expect to spend on a typical portion."
Pre-portioned fish may tick the convenience box, but Morrisons is in no hurry to eliminate its fish counters. So it made them more convenient by introducing a 'bag and bake' service. This supplies fish in an 'ovenable' polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bag, with a 'free' butter or rub included inside it. This removes the so-called 'fear factor' because customers can put the fish straight in the oven without having to touch it.
The fear factor
Thomas says: "This takes away several barriers [to fish consumption] at the same time: not knowing how to prepare the fish, the smell, not wanting to handle it and being unsure of how to cook it"
Morrisons is also breaking barriers away from the fish counter by selling pre-portioned fish in film-sealed foil trays for the supermarket shelf. The fish has a knob of butter on it and a sachet of sauce on the side. All consumers have to do is take the film off, put the tray in the oven and pour the sauce on top. The sales speak for themselves.
Howard Sims runs Morrisons' Grimsby-based fish processing plant, which started production in November 2012. Sims says: "We started doing this [packaging fish in film-sealed foil trays] when we first opened before Christmas so we were cautious and made 5,000 units in our first week of production. But demand was such that we're already up to around 10,000 foil trays a week."
Pre-portioned fish packaged in Darfresh skin wrap have proved even more popular. Morrisons' Grimsby facility is already processing around 50,000 units of these a week.
"Two-thirds of the fresh fish market in the UK is pre-packed fish. There's a massive market there," says Sims. "Darfresh keeps the product fresher by getting it under the skin wrap as soon as possible. All the customer has to do is take it out of the packaging and put it in the pan."
Morrisons installed Marel's salmon filleting and processing line and white fish trimming lines to automatically fillet, portion and debone the fish.
Sims says: "All you need to do is feed the salmon into the filleter. The machine measures it with lasers and decides where the blades will cut. It comes out perfectly filleted so all we need to do is employ a small team of people to trim it."
Sims is also a fan of Marel's pin boning machines: "UK consumers are very fussy when it comes to bones," he says. "Marel's machines have a series of rollers that move down the flesh to remove those really tiny bones. The end result is a boneless fillet that we send to a portioner."
Seachill has also seen great success by ticking the convenience box with its pre-packed fish brand: The Saucy Fish Co. The portions come packaged in Sealed Air Darfresh's skin packaging and twinned with an appropriate sauce or in a foil bake bag. The reflective foil bag is sealed with flavoured butters inside it, which seep into the fish while it's cooking.
And so the fish makes its journey from ocean to trawler, through processing and retail to plate without the consumer having to lay one squeamish finger on it. No heads, no tails. No skin, no bones. A hands-off seafood strategy that's racking up sales.
Seafood processor's smoked salmon slicing solution
Italy-based fish processor Excellent Seafood started processing smoked salmon in 2010. By 2011 the company was producing 6t of seafood a week and it was time to research and invest in a new slicing and packing line.
The company chose Marel's DPL Dynamic Packing & Slicing Line 125 to slice and pack smoked salmon, swordfish portions and smoked tuna.
The line's first advantage was that it made handling the fish easier because it spaced the slices out evenly on the conveyor belt, which made them easier to pick up. Moreover, the firm claims that being able to slice the salmon at temperatures of between -4°C and 4°C has made the production flow more dynamic. The optimum temperature is quickly achieved in a refrigerated store, so there is no need to separate the production phases.
Keeping the same temperature throughout the process also ensures the final product is kept in quality condition with regard to bacteria.
Excellent Seafood's production and quality manager Nicola Tontini says: "The new line has significantly improved performance. Fixed-weight slices are cut to a high degree of accuracy. This precision dramatically increases yield by avoiding weight loss on the fixed-weight packages."