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reLAKSation no 1116

Pollocks: According to Undercurrent News, Andrew Allchurch of Sofina Foods (Young’s) told the 2023 North Atlantic Seafood Forum that Alaska pollock has overhauled cod as the UK’s second most consumed species and will likely replace salmon as the number one in 2024. He said that data from Kantar for the last twelve months shows pollock sales are at 56,1000 tonnes compared to 55,400 tonnes for cod and salmon at 58,200 tonnes. Of these fish species, pollock sales have grown by 9% whilst cod is down 12% and salmon down by 5%.

Mr Allchurch points out that the decline in cod sales is fuelled by frozen battered (-19%), Frozen breaded (-17%), Frozen fish fingers (-20%), Chilled breaded (-11%), Chilled fishcakes (-10%), Natural counters (-19%), and Natural prepack (-1%).

Yet, this would not be the first time that we have seen Alaska pollock replace cod as the dominant species in the UK market. Some years ago, environmental groups warned that North Sea cod stocks had collapsed and that the British public should not be eating cod (even though much of the fish consumed came from Norway and Iceland). The majority of processed cod products switched over to Alaska pollock as a more responsible choice to help save local cod stocks. Even though cod was available from outside the UK, the processors realised that not only would UK consumers eat Alaska pollock, but its lower price made it a more attractive choice.  The arrival of Alaska pollock to the mainstream meant the introduction of some novel presentations including omega 3 rich fish even though the levels of omega -3 found in white fish fell significantly short of those found in oily fish such as salmon.

After North Sea cod stocks had started to recover, then slowly products made from cod returned to the market because consumers would still choose cod over imported Alaskan pollock if both were equally available.

As I write this commentary, most coated fish products sold in the UK are still made from cod and haddock. However, Alaska pollock and the increasing even cheaper pangasius continue to hold a share of the market, typically in the cheaper range of products. In Tesco, 30 fish fingers made from cod cost £7.75 whilst the same number and weight made from Alaska pollock are priced at £5.

What is more interesting is that Seafish’s Nielsen retail data shows a completely different picture to that offered by Mr Allchurch. Salmon sales are at 66,201 tonnes (-11.1%), with cod at 49,871 tonnes (-15.3%) and pollock at 31,857 tonnes (-4.6%), all of which are in decline. This Is not surprising given that higher prices have affected not just fish, but products across the whole grocery range. (A large can of Heinz baked beans now costs a whopping £1.40 in Tesco).

It is more than likely that the growth that Mr Allchurch anticipates may be driven by food service where such substitution would be caused by the need to reduce the cost of the basic ingredients. Yet, unless there is a major shift in the retail demand, it is hard to see Alaskan pollock dominate the sector again. Currently, there are still regular promotions on cod products to try to tempt consumers to buy. For example, Asda have Bird’s Eye 4 breaded cod fillets (440g) priced at £4 which is a saving of £2. Sainsbury’s have 10 cod fish fingers (280g) priced at £2.75 saving £1.25 whilst Morrisons have 8 own label cod fishcakes (400g) priced at £2.25 saving 24p.  However, retailers are also promoting products made from Alaska pollock such as Young’s label, Gastro 2 Tempura battered fish fillets (270g) selling for £3.00 at Tesco with a saving of £1.50.

Mr Allchurch repeated the comments made by Simon Smith of Sofina at last year’s conference who said that cod needs a reset focused on provenance, sustainability and quality. I am not sure that I agree, as currently demand is driven by price and price alone. However, he also said that communication on how cod can fit into the lifestyles of younger people who are eating more from bowls making a large fillet of cod somewhat unsuitable. He said that we need to look at products such as cod balls and bites. Whilst this is a nice idea, I think we have gone beyond such simple changes making any difference. It is already possible to buy cod bites in UK stores such as the M&S breaded version (300g) costing £5. I believe that It’s not a reset that is needed, but a total rethink.

Finally, I return to the article headline, which said that Alaska pollock will replace salmon as the UK’s top species. Actually, this is somewhat irrelevant. Salmon and Alaska pollock are not competing for the same customer base. They are very different markets. Whitefish (including cod and Alaska pollock) already outsell salmon. The third placed species in the Seafish Nielsen survey is tuna and as of January was already within 235 tonnes of salmon sales. The majority of these sales are canned and again represents a very different market to salmon.

The challenge for the seafood sector is not a race to sell the most of any species, but how to get consumers to eat more fish and especially of a wider range of species.


Lumpsucker: Intrafish reports that the UK fish sector is dominated by just a handful of species even though over 40 different fish are landed at UK fishing ports every day. Most of these are exported to other parts of Europe. Ocean Fish, Cornwall’s oldest fishing and processing import-export business is now hoping to persuade more British consumers to eat some of these other species including gurnard, hagfish and lumpsucker.

The company asked themselves is there a way that UK consumers can be encouraged to try other species and not surprisingly, they found that it is much harder than they thought. Apparently, UK consumers don’t like heads, or eyes or scales or anything that is not a portion. Instead, the company decided the only way to get UK consumers to try British fish would be to put it into an added value format. Therefore, they have established a new brand ‘Hook. Line and Sinker and teamed up with a local chef to develop a range of products made with different fish but with some more familiar flavours. Initially, they have selected sardines, hake, and monkfish as the base of their new products and these have been launched through Ocado, the online retailer. The new products include monkfish with Chimichurri marinade, sardines with Mediterranean marinade and Harissa monkfish skewers.

Of course, these are far from being the more unusual species they want to sell, but ones that are already available in mainstream stores. What is interesting is that being an online retailer Ocado do post customer reviews and the overriding impression is that these products have not really resonated with their customers. It seems that most reviewers bought the products in a flash sale, or they had been sent them to try for free. There were several reasons why customers didn’t like them including taste, especially of the sauces, and texture, but price appeared to be a major factor too. The most liked product was mid-priced range hake with smoked garlic butter at £6 but even this fish got very mixed reviews.

Presumably, Ocado sent these products to their customers who already had a history of buying fish but I wonder whether they might appeal to consumers who were fixed on buying just the Big Five most popular fish?

The problem is that adding a bit of butter, marinade or sauce will never be enough to persuade consumers to change their buying habits. Adding value is nothing new to the fish and seafood sector and isn’t even guaranteed to work with popular species such as salmon or cod. For a long time now, I have argued that we now need a total new approach at how we present fish and seafood to a wide range of consumers, but the sector appears to be unresponsive to change. Consequently, over the years, we have seen how the market has focused on a handful of species and continued to contract. At the same time, the market has changed, both with the type of shopper and how they shop. As the market continues to shrink, familiarity with fish and seafood will also diminish. Adding sauce to different species is not going to reverse this decline.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to see where change is going to come from. There is no longer any national marketing programme for fish and seafood and our government seems unable to see beyond the obvious. It recently funded a small project to see what the obstacles there are to fish consumption, something which has already been researched to death. At the same time, the multi-million Seafood Innovation Fund has shied away from investing in market issues preferring to fund technology. They did fund a project to rename megrim as Cornish sole. As someone who monitors the retail sector, I can state categorically, that this idea did not work. Megrim, whatever its name, remains a rarity in the retail sector.

It will be interesting to see how long Hook, Line & Sinker products keep their listing at Ocado. Certainly, consumers don’t seem to like their monkfish or sardines so the chances of selling Hagfish and lumpsucker seem as unlikely as ever.


Hake & chips: Intrafish report that South African hake is becoming an increasingly regular feature on UK fish and chip shop menus as the sector seeks alternatives to Russian fish. Apparently before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, 40% of the fish sold by fish and chip shops came from Russia. The National Fish Fryers Federation say that the hake is a smaller fillet so perfect for a lunchtime special. It cost fryers two thirds the price of cod and haddock so there is a financial incentive to use it.

Yet, the big question is why? Why were fish and chip shops buying fish from Russia and why are they now turning to South African hake? Have British fish and chip shops not heard of the 40 species landed on British shores and then exported because there is no local demand. The same financial incentive exists for fish and chip shops to use these British species.

Fish and chip shops take a similar approach to the rest of the fish and seafood sector when it comes to the market. There is little incentive to innovate preferring to follow the safe option. The fact that consumers are willing to buy South African hake shows that the long-held view that the fish must be cod or haddock is no longer valid. In fact, some years ago, I remember the then Radio 2 DJ Chris Evans holding a long discussion on his programme saying that the species of fish in fish and chips is irrelevant as it is the batter that dictates the taste and quality of the fish and chip meal. He is right.

It is therefore a puzzle as to why fish and chip shops do not utilise the local fish on their doorstep. It is the usual problem of a lack of innovation or foresight and the failure to recognise opportunity. One objection to other species may be the size of the fillet as highlighted by NFFF. However, there is a fish and chip shop in Manchester called Armstrong’s who promote themselves as the ‘Home of the Jumbo Cod’. The fact that jumbo cod are now rare is not an issue as they just join two fillets together to make a bigger portion When the fish is battered, no-one would know the difference.

The use of South African hake in British fish and chips shops is just one example of why the wider fish and seafood sector is stagnating. The UK fish and seafood sector needs new ideas, new products and new consumers.


Trends: The latest Seafish Nielsen data was published this week and it provides the latest insight into consumption trends. In April 2020, fish consumption jumped by 32,072 tonnes as a result of lockdown.  Over the next year, consumption continued to rise peaking in May 2021 at 53,202 tonnes higher than prior to the pandemic. In the years before then, there had been a slow decline in consumption.

The latest data shows that the UK public have reverted to their former pattern of home consumption of fish and seafood. Since peaking in May 2021, consumption has declined to now by 27,973 tonnes for all species and all presentations.  We are still a long way from the level of consumption in February 2020, but every passing month brings further declines. A sobering thought.