With the media pummelling the health message through consumers' every open pore and the Food Standards Agency imploring consumers to eat more fish, it would seem that the seafood industry is in an enviable position. While manufacturers across a spectrum of food categories are pumping all their resources into reducing fat and salt levels, seafood processors already have what is viewed as a healthy product.
So with consumers hungry for a taste of the ocean's platter, how can seafood manufacturers differentiate their products from the thousands on offer?
"It's bent on consumer perception," says Catherine McKeever, category manager for coatings at ingredients supplier Griffith Laboratories. "People understand fish to be healthy, but with regard to what you put on the substrate, we have had more requests for healthy coatings like cereals."
McKeever believes that while the price of cod is going up due to UK fishing restrictions, hake, hoki, mackerel and coley is a growing market. She says that Griffith will be able to adapt its current coating system to most of the new species, but that omega-3 rich mackerel may pose more of a challenge. "Mackerel is quite an oily fish so we need to ensure that the level of adhesion [between coating and substrate] is fulfilled," she adds.
Lisa Tomlinson, new product development (NPD) manager at Cold Water Seafood in Grimsby, is also convinced that the secret to expanding seafood's healthy image is in the coating. "Fish may be covered in lighter coatings such as seeds and grain instead of batter and breadcrumbs."
This is a practical solution for fish products targeted at adults, but the younger generation may take more convincing, before they stray from fishfingers.
"Children don't like fish very much, so you have to make it as appealing as possible if you put it in batter, they'll love it," says Trisha Rasor, marketing manager at Crown Foods. "We have two fish products specifically targeted at the schools sector.
The first is a 60g pollack fillet covered in a tempura batter. "It is very light and designed to be regenerated in the oven. It doesn't have any extra fat on it because it hasn't been fried, other than going in the flash fryer during production," says Rasor.
Diced pollack fillet is the company's second fish product. The pollack comes in 12mm cubes for use in fish pies or with white sauce and vegetables. "We've been working on the products since December and the 60g fillet is ideal because 57g is the minimum recommended daily allowance of fish protein for kids, explains Rasor.
Another means of helping firms to give their fish dishes the upper hand, is product fortification. Tony Miles, technical director at Crown Foods, has started exploring the possibility of injecting omega-3 into products and Cumbrian Seafoods in Maryport is following a similar vein of thought.
We are developing ways of adding omega-3 to fish coatings, says Cumbrian's head of NPD Michael Redhead. "We are also looking at a low-fat system using crumbs impregnated with olive oil, which avoids [the product] going through the deep fat fryer.
Redhead also observes that consumer demand for convenience continues to play a key role in NPD. "People want a quick product to eat. A lot of chilled products take just 15-20 minutes to cook."
Food that can be cooked from fresh in a matter of minutes is a theme that has been embraced by Marks & Spencer. The retailer has recently launched 30 fish products, introducing unusual species such as rock lobster from Australia and US-sourced swordfish into its Cook! range of semi-prepared foods. Kathryn Turner, category developer for the range, says: "Cook! has been especially designed for people who don't want to cook from scratch and want fresh ingredients with an element of preparation done for them."
New additions to the range include: Scottish Salmon Fillets in a Smoked Salmon & Herb Crust with a Tomato & Red Onion Salsa; Smoked Haddock with Taw Valley Cheddar & Wholegrain Mustard Melt; and Cod Loins with Lemon Thyme, Lemon Juice & Cracked Black Pepper.
The Seafood Company, which supplies Marks & Spencer, has taken convenience a step further with its branded range and has developed ready-to-eat layered shellfish cocktails in clear polycarbonate goblets with tear-off clear lids. The products come in crayfish tail cocktail or prawn cocktail varieties and are sold as a straight-to-table starter.
Young's Bluecrest Seafood is another firm keen to get involved in the trend for premium appetisers. "In the UK there's clearly an opportunity for manufactured starters," says NPD controller Guy Miller. "People are investing more in houses and looking to do more entertaining at home, but don't have the culinary skills." The firm has developed Coquille St Jacques a high quality speciality starter made with Queen scallops and langoustine tails in a white wine sauce topped with mashed potato and parmesan cheese.
Miller's main aim is to take fish back to basics. "We're not just selling fish, we're selling chefs' created ready meals. The big drive is taking what is a very wholesome protein and minimising any additives, which might give the consumer an idea that it's been played with." He states that many people don't feel comfortable with seafood and need to be better educated on the subject.
"Catfish is big in the US and we have looked at using it, but our challenge is trying to get people into different species," says Miller, who has recently been working with South African Cape hake. "With Cape hake, consumers are comfortable with it, but no one's going to make the leap from cod to catfish unless its really cheap."
Frozen market ices over
In the last quarter, chilled seafood value increased by 9%, whereas the frozen sector remains stubbornly flat . "Frozen is quite difficult because of cabinet space, says Miller. "People don't browse frozen, they browse chilled."
He admits that getting premium products into frozen is a problem because there is "no Häagen Dazs within seafood. However, he says that Young's Cape hake dish is a "major departure for frozen as it's made with a light oil glaze and is fairly accessible in terms of pricing.
So while some manufacturers are focusing on enriched products, there is also a strong pull towards minimalist processing and unadulterated dishes.
Whether there is room in the market for both trends to flourish remains to be seen. But surely it's time for manufacturers to turn their attentions towards NPD in the frozen category, before consumers abandon it completely, he says.
Experimentation with different species seems an obvious step forward, but it is only the manufacturers who communicate their developments to consumers who will win over this tough market. FM