Christmas past: iLAKS reported that in the past the pre-Christmas period was dominant for salmon sales, but this is no longer the case. They say that salmon has now gone from being a festive treat to an everyday food. This is based on the observation that sales of salmon in the run up to Christmas have decreased not increased. iLAKS say that major continental processors are buying earlier when prices are seasonally low, and then freezing the fish, which are then to be placed in the market when prices are higher, even waiting until spring of the following year. This has meant processors no longer chase fresh salmon just before Christmas when prices have previously risen. This means that the prices even out throughout the year.
iLAKS have written in bold that smoother price development is possibly boring, not least for speculators but it helps buyers and sellers as it leads to increased predictability and peace of mind in the value chain. This will stimulate work on market development not least in the grocery segment which is the major driver of salmon consumption.
Although this was probably a bit of a throw away story for iLAKS filling in a bit of space just before Christmas, I would argue that this is the most important story of 2023 and one which will develop in coming years.
When I began to write reLAKSation back in 2000, the focus was entirely on the market for salmon and its future development. The market for salmon has always been interesting to watch of the way it has evolved over the years. During the late 1980s, the salmon market entered a period of turmoil that led the Scottish industry to submit a dumping case against Norway who they accused of dumping cheap salmon onto the European market. The reality was that dumping had never occurred, but that what they saw as dumping was due to the evolution of the industry. It had evolved from an industry of high margins and low volumes to one of high volumes and low margins. It was simply impossible to produce something that was perceived as being a luxury food but to do so in commodity numbers.
This change heralded a major change in market development. The market didn’t want whole salmon in high numbers, so the far-sighted processors recognised that by cutting up the fish and then adding value, the market could be diversified and expanded. At the time, the potential for development was huge. Unfortunately, it was the processors who were getting the benefit of the market development whilst salmon farmers simply sold their fish at a low margin. The obvious route was for producers to become involved in processing but as it turned out, it was a processor who led the way by seeing that buying into farming could be the way forward. This was the Belgian Gilbert Pieters who I met several times. Whilst Gilbert had good ideas, his venture struggled because the farms he bought were not in the best location for his business. Over the subsequent years, the business changed hands and eventually was merged into Marine Harvest, and this has led on to the Mowi processing business.
The scope of integrating salmon farming into the whole supply chain has been slow to realise. This was because to fund development farming companies entered the stock market which didn’t necessarily result in a totally positive outcome for such developments. This is because as soon as the sector went to the stock market, it became the subject of speculators, who iLAKS suggest would be looking for lucrative short-term gains as distinct from boring and safe long-term investments. There has been a very simple relationship between share price and salmon prices so that when salmon prices were high share prices and thus potential profit increased. The emphasis was all about salmon prices, regardless of how they impacted the market and more importantly the consumer. Investors were more interested in making money than whether salmon became too expensive for consumers. High prices were definitely detrimental for the processing sector, and it seems that they have fought back with judicial use of the freezer and buying when it was most advantageous for them. Inevitably if demand weakens, the high prices so liked by investors could not be realised. Could 2023 be the year of change when the industry evolves again away from higher prices towards the lower margins and higher volumes that were once the basis of an exciting and vibrant sector. This could widen the market by diversifying salmon into all sorts of added value products that are attractive to consumers. These would be available throughout the year rather than just being at Christmas.
Certainly, the signs of such change are apparent in UK retail. The range of products available this Christmas has been not as extensive as before. Salmon is consumed so often that it is no longer seen as a treat at Christmas. It is still widely available and in quantity at Christmas, but it is no longer is the centrepiece it once was. The same applies to the canapes and terrines that used to adorn the Christmas table. Smoked salmon is more likely to be eaten at Christmas breakfast than at the Christmas party. Some might see this as a loss to the salmon industry, but if it means that salmon becomes more popular throughout the rest of the year, then it is a price worth paying.
The second observation of change this Christmas is the amount of salmon stocked on retail shelves that is only partly defrosted indicating that it was still frozen as it reached the retail stores. Clearly the products were prepared some time ago and frozen rather than being supplied chilled in the run up to the festive season.
It used to be said that the real advantage of farmed salmon in the marketplace was its consistent quality, its consistent availability and its consistent price. This is something that the market could depend on, but the message of these attributes has been lost in recent times.
When I first became involved in the market, salmon demand and prices peaked twice each year, once at Easter and then again at Christmas. The Easter peak diminished some years ago leaving just Christmas as the time when producers could depend on being able to sell fish at a higher price and make a decent margin. As Christmas has increasingly become less important for salmon, could it be that these peaks have gone for good. Instead, the focus should now be placed on exploiting salmon’s versatility as an everyday meal choice, available in many different forms.
Best deals: The demise of the supermarket fish counter has meant the demise of the whole salmon as a Christmas special, but of course consumers were already moving away from fish counter fish, which is why fish counters are now so rare. The best deal on whole salmon was not from a fish counter but in Aldi at £5.99/kg but the fish were difficult to find in store probably because so few were stocked. The best deal to be had from a fish counter, was from Morrisons. Shoppers with a Morrisons card could buy whole salmon at £6.99/kg or £7.99/kg without. The store claimed this to be a discount from £9.99/kg although earlier in December Morrisons whole salmon was selling at £13.50/kg. The only other whole salmon was available in a pack from Sainsburys at £7.50/kg which was promoted as being at half price from £15/kg, which was the price of the fish when it first appeared in stores in mid-December.
The best price salmon fillets were sold as a salmon side. Prices were relatively similar across several stores.
Asda – £12.37/kg (third off)
Tesco -£12.00/kg (half price)
Sainsburys £12.50/kg (half price)
The budget retails were selling sides at £11.99/kg but these stores appeared to have limited supplies.
For smoked salmon, the budget retailers won with Aldi selling a 300g pack at just £4.99. No other store matched this price with Morrisons coming in closest at £20/kg.
These promotions offered consumers a good deal on salmon for Christmas, but they pale into insignificance compared to Christmas promotions of yesteryear. These observations do appear to confirm that the market is beginning to realise that salmon is now an everyday fish rather than a special treat.
Unsocial media: From time-to-time readers of reLAKSation send me titbits from the social media critics. None of them seem to have any unique thoughts themselves as they simply repeat messages posted by others. It doesn’t seem how weak the connection is to salmon farming, they always find any excuse to criticise.
I was particularly struck by one example of such blinkered vision. Just prior to the holidays, one well-informed and prolific critic posted:
Scottish farmed salmon comes with a PUBLIC HEATH WARNING. “Children and pregnant women should eat NO MORE than two portions per week”.
This is Scotland’s biggest food export and it’s DEADLY.
Shame on this industry and the Scottish Government for peddling it as a “healthy food”.
The question is what has prompted this warning of salmon as a deadly food. The culprit is a pack of Coop smoked salmon with whisky. Printed on the back of the are the ingredient list, allergy advice, home freezing advice, storage, a note of caution – whilst the smoker has tried to remove every bone, they could have missed some – and then a warning:
“Children under 16 and pregnant women shouldn’t eat more than two portions of oily fish a week.”
The National Health Service website describes oily fish as including herring, pilchards, salmon, sardines, sprats, trout, and mackerel. Is this critic suggesting that all these fish are deadly if consumed more than twice a week and when it comes to salmon, does he/she differentiate between farmed Atlantic Wild Pacific, not forgetting there are some farmed Pacific salmon. The reality is that as the NHS website suggests that the public should eat two portions of fish a week, one of which should be an oily fish. They also say that there is different advice for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding and children and babies. Having different advice does not make salmon deadly but what this shows is that when the criticism thrown at salmon farming is analysed, there is very little truth in the matter.
The same blinkered view is applied to Listeria, which in rare cases has been identified in smoked salmon products. The presence of Listeria can lead to symptoms similar to flu although in very rare cases there can be serious complications. No-one wants to see any cases of Listeria, but it sometimes happens. In response, the critics usually cite the presence of Listeria as reason why the salmon farming industry should be shut down.
I am reminded of Listeria because over the holiday period, there were extensive press reports concerning Mrs Kirkham’s Lancashire cheese dairy. Apparently, there has been one death, and several people are in hospital after allegedly eating the cheese. This is now attributed to a new strain of E coli.
Mrs Kirkham’s dairy uses raw milk in some of its cheeses which has therefore not been pasteurised. This is a major blow to a well-known family dairy and yet despite widespread coverage in the press, I have seen no-one suggest that because this dairy has suffered this outbreak, that the whole cheese sector should be shut down. In fact, many comments written on newspaper websites hope that the dairy gets through this difficult time and wish them well for the future with assurances that their cheese will still be eaten. By comparison, it seems that salmon farming only has to touch bad news for demands from the critics that the industry should be shut down.
Of course, most of the critics are associated with the angling sector and they continue to blame salmon farming for the decline of wild fish numbers. They are not interested in hearing anything that might contradict their view, especially that if salmon farming was to be removed from the seas around Scotland, then salmon and sea trout numbers would recover. A recent newcomer to the social media scene – Free Salmon – who recently posted that ‘you simply cannot farm salmon in warming waters. It’s not going to get any better unless climate change reverses.’
Sadly, what Free Salmon fails to realise is that if warming waters are unacceptable to farmed salmon, then they are equally so to wild salmon too. It is already clear that angling for salmon is now on the edge as far as temperature is concerned in many Scottish rivers, although strangely, the wild fish sector does not appear to express sufficient concern to stop fishing.
Finally, the number one critic has said that 2023 will be seen as the watershed moment when salmon farming died in warming waters. It seems that Mr Staniford has been claiming salmon farming is dead in the water for many years and yet, salmon farming continues to march on.