Very Fishy – a taste test: The Sun newspaper (Scottish edition) reports that TV chef(?) Greg Wallace is stunned to learn supermarkets add flavours to salmon so it doesn’t taste too fishy. The papers say that viewers are equally shocked. The paper says that salmon is one of the most popular fish with British shoppers flocking to stores to buy it each week but it has been revealed that some supermarkets pump salmon with a host of flavours as people don’t like it to taste ‘too fishy’. Masterchef host Greg Wallace was left stunned by the revelation during the BBC One TV show – ‘Supermarket Shopping Secrets’. He watched fish going through a machine which injects a number of flavours into the salmon including lemon and herb. When Greg asked why fish was injected, he was told that ‘some customers don’t like fishy flavours so again it just enhances it and takes the fear factor away from people. Greg responded by saying that ‘you’re putting flavours in there that aren’t fish because people don’t like fish? He added that he thought that this is weird.

It is easy to see how newspapers can sensationalise a story to make it more interesting to readers. Whilst the Scottish Sun accurately report Greg’s comments, the small section of the programme about fish looked at an example of a new way to make fish products more attractive to consumers who might not otherwise eat fish, rather than something practised across the retail sector.

The programme explained that over the last twenty years, the time people spend cooking dinner has halved. People are time poor and want convenience. They are put off by foods that look as if they are hard work. One food with a tricky reputation is fish. Shoppers might once have bought a whole fish and had to gut it, scale it and fillet it before cutting it into portions. (However, we would have said all that work was once done by the fishmonger not the shopper). The programme continued that now all the work is done as the supermarkets sell portions in convenient packs ready to go. According to the programme. the supermarket, Sainsbury’s, wants to make it even more convenient.

The programme featured two innovations that Sainsbury’s think will make fish, in this case salmon, more attractive to consumers. Firstly, as Greg observed, the salmon fillets were injected with lemon flavouring. The fish fillet was then portioned and given a dusting of herbs before being sent for packaging.

The second innovation was what was described as a new bit of technological wizardry that’s going to make fish eating even easier. This is new packaging that is expected to revolutionise the cooking and eating of fish. It is microwaveable packaging which will allow the fish to be cooked in the microwave whilst still in the pack. As the pack cooks it puffs up with steam but when it gets to a certain temperature, the seal breaks releasing the steam.

Greg tasted the cooked fish and found it a bit too well done for his taste but he agreed that it would be fine for most consumers. However, he said that he is rather sad if it takes all that effort to make us eat fish. His final comment was ‘if that’s what it takes to put fish on the menu then so be it!’

We, at Callander McDowell, agree. We can understand that foodie traditionalists like Greg cannot comprehend consumer resistance to fish but it does exist and it needs to be addressed if the fish and seafood industry want consumers to continue buying their produce. We have always argued that the industry needs to produce what the consumer wants, not what it thinks that the consumer wants even if it sounds somewhat farfetched to some.

Flavoured salmon is not new. Retailers have been selling fish fillets, mainly salmon, marinated with flavour, on and off many years. Injecting fish with brine for smoking is also not new so it was not a big step to try to inject the fish with more flavour. It is true that many consumers are deterred from eating fish because it tastes too fishy, as ridiculous as that sounds. Adding more flavour to dampen the fishy flavour would seem a logical step if it helps persuade these consumers to start eating fish.

In the same way, the convenience of cooking a pack of fish fillets in the microwave without any preparation, even piercing the film, is an attractive proposition to the many consumers who are fearful that they don’t know how to cook fish. However, whilst the TV programme suggested that microwaveable packs are new technological wizardry, fish packed ready for microwaving has been available for two or three years. Regular readers of reLAKSation may remember that we have reviewed such products more than once before.

                       

Despite, the advances made by such products, we are somewhat lukewarm to this new Sainsbury’s microwaveable lemon & herb infused salmon fillets, although maybe not for the obvious reasons. We have tasted tested this product and found it acceptable but nothing special. We wouldn’t have known that extra flavour had been injected into the flesh, had we not learnt this from the TV programme. The fish tasted fine but we found the herb topping spoilt the overall taste. Perhaps, had the herbs been dill rather than parsley, it might have tasted better.

However, our lukewarm reaction to this product doesn’t come from the taste but rather the packaging and the way that the pack is displayed in store. The pack may be the result of technological wizardry but it actually looks no different to any other pack of salmon on Sainsbury’s shelves. The label follows exactly the same format and appearance as all the other packs. Shoppers would have to look hard to see that this pack can be cooked directly in the microwave. There is nothing that jumps out from the label to say this. Under the large letter of the product description, the pack states ‘simply microwave, ready in minutes’ and there is a small grey square that states ‘microwaveable 4 mins’. We would have thought that the label would be shouting out the uniqueness of the pack but it doesn’t. It’s just another pack of salmon, albeit one with flavour. It’s not that novel as Sainsbury’s also sell flavoured salmon that can’t be cooked direct from the pack.

The real weakness of this pack in our view is that the fact that it is so convenient should make it a magnet for those consumers who might want to eat fish but are deterred by their lack of knowledge of how to cook or other general concerns about eating fish such as the smell of cooking, bones, skin etc. However, such consumers are never going to even see this pack and understand its convenience because they never go down the fish aisle since they never buy fish. All the benefits of this pack are totally lost to the consumers to which it is aimed because the pack is not displayed where such consumers would see it. Instead, it is just another pack of salmon on a shelf of other packs of salmon.

What is missing are things that can be easily remedied. The pack needs a stand out label that shouts out its convenience and it needs to be displayed alongside other equally convenient proteins. Sainsbury’s even have a second variety so that this product does not have to sit on its own. This is Lime, Chilli and Coconut infused salmon fillets and is just as invisible to shoppers as the lemon and herb variety.

 

Wrong mails:  There is a bit of a storm brewing in Norway about the way the seafood industry has lobbied various government ministers that is more of a storm in a teacup. Simply, an industry lobbyist tried to contact ministers through their private email accounts. This came to light after a Swedish citizen with the same name as the Fisheries Minister received one of the mails and subsequently contacted the media.

The lobbyist was somewhat unrepentant saying that he would use any method to do his job. We, at Callander McDowell think that the Norwegian media has blown his action out of all proportion. We do not see that using a private email account is any different to approaching a Minister at, for example, a conference and having a word in private.

Sometimes, the official system can be an obstacle to getting the message across. We know ourselves that correspondence sent to a minister can actually go to a civil servant who answers it on the minister’s behalf. It can be unclear whether the minister even read the message or is aware of the importance of the content. If the lobbyist was the only person trying to contact a minister then perhaps, the minister would hear the message but when there are many lobbyists doing the same thing, sometimes a different approach is required.

In this case, we think that the media have focused too much on the messenger rather than the message and it is the message that is important.

We have written recently about the conflict between scientists who have an almost gospel like belief in their work and industry. This is the issue that the media should address, not how one lobbyist tried to catch the attention of government to express his concerns.

We will be returning the issue of how much ‘science’ can wrongly impact on the commercial world in future reLAKSation commentaries.

 

Going blind: Continued high salmon prices ensure that many farming companies in Norway are making healthy profits, however Osland Aquaculture which also reported good results expressed words of caution to iLAKS.

The company said that good prices can make producers blind to the fact that they could become less competitive in future. Prices may have gone up but worryingly so have costs. Osland Aquaculture think that any expansion must be matched by cost reductions or an increased spending on marketing.

We, at Callander McDowell have seen this before. Back in 1989, prices were high but at the same time, such high prices had blinded producers to increasing costs. Costs were not really a consideration since high prices were giving bumper rewards. Producers tried to grab a greater share of the reward by increasing production but as more salmon came to market, prices weakened but costs remained high. Profitability disappeared overnight, eventually leading to the damaging trade war between the EU and Norway. It was a complete surprise to the producers and led to a major shake-up of the industry.

We are not suggesting that we will see a repeat of the 1990’s again but Osland Aquaculture is completely right in their view that high prices and good results can mask the fact that their feet have been taken off the pedal of cost control.

The major difference between the 1990’s and now is that a significant part of the salmon industry has aligned itself with the stock exchange. Investors are looking for immediate rewards rather than long-term stability. We are not sure the two can be sustained together. Time will tell as to how long it will be before those who were blinded can see again.

 

Medicinal spend: Fish Farming Expert recently reported that there has been a dramatic decrease in the spend on medicinal treatments against sea lice. Over the past two years the salmon industry has reduced the spend on medicinal treatments from 71 percent of the total fish health management costs to just 28 percent. This news comes just as the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) announced that it intends to issue new licences for the use of Slice (Emamectin benzoate) to control sea lice.

The reduction in the use of such medicinal treatments as Slice is due to the wider use of cleaner fish and mechanical treatments. In the future, medicinal treatment is likely to become a last resort option only and thus SEPA’s announcement to review the use of medicinal treatments and issue new licences may be over taken by events.

It is worth remembering that Slice is a licensed product that has been given approval for use in salmon farming. Its impact on the environment had to be measured as part of this process. It is not as if the potential impacts are not known.

It does seem that SEPA may have reacted to recent media attention following Freedom of Information requests. It is not as if SEPA didn’t know the content of the information released, it is just that it has been made public and SEPA now want to be seen to be taking action, not that it wasn’t before.

SEPA are also belatedly reacting to a report commissioned by SARF but not subjected to scrutiny that suggests that SLICE does have impacts on the environment.

Could it be that by the time any new questions are answered, the use of SLICE may not be so relevant. These are questions SEPA should have asked during the product’s licencing process not now as usage is in decline.