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How did buying fish get so complicated?

The numbers tell the tale: Americans are eating more seafood. The most recent stats total 16.6 pounds per capita, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. And about 60 percent of that eating is taking place in restaurants. Although the seafood supply has held steady, the industry is struggling to keep up with demand—especially if that supply is mismanaged. “Sustainability and safety of the supply are the top two challenges,” says Henry Lovejoy, president of Eco-Fish, a seafood wholesaler. Price is the third.

The numbers tell the tale: Americans are eating more seafood.

The most recent stats total 16.6 pounds per capita, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. And about 60 percent of that eating is taking place in restaurants. Although the seafood supply has held steady, the industry is struggling to keep up with demand—especially if that supply is mismanaged.

“Sustainability and safety of the supply are the top two challenges,” says Henry Lovejoy, president of Eco-Fish, a seafood wholesaler. Price is the third. “Seafood is the last hunter-gatherer food system,” he adds. “Since harvesting is closely tied to the lifestyle of the fisherman, the product is more prone to price fluctuations.” Right now, fuel prices have jacked up the cost of doing business and fishing fleets have to pass on those increases. With customer expectations and prices both running high, restaurateurs have to juggle several variables to make smart buying decisions.

How sustainable is farmed fish?

Aquaculture has been a boon to the supply chain and as the quality of many species has improved, it has been embraced further. But the issues of sustainability that have plagued some wild species have also become more prominent on the farm. Ultimately, the ecological impact of aquaculture depends on the species being raised, how they’re raised and where the farm is located.

Trout, catfish and tilapia are raised inland in sustainable water supplies where wastes are carefully controlled and cannot contaminate coastal waters or the wild supply.

Salmon are cultivated in net pens usually situated in coastal waters. In the United States, Canada, Chile and other developed nations, salmon farmers must abide by laws that protect the surrounding seas from wastes, so country of origin sourcing and sustainable practices should be key to purchasing decisions.

Clams, oysters and mussels are raised in special beds or on ropes suspended near the shoreline. Harvesting these shellfish does little to disturb the ecosystem. And as they grow, they filter plankton from the water for their food supply and can actually improve water quality.

Shrimp farms run by certain producers in the United States and Mexico use re-circulating closed-water systems and tanks, thus eliminating contamination by waste products; others use inland ponds and treat the wastes internally. Several shrimp farms, including one in Ecuador, have also received organic certification. But generally, shrimp farmed in Asia and Latin America are not as ocean-friendly. Check with your supplier to make sure you’re getting sustainably farmed shrimp.


Freezing Techniques

For the majority of operators, buying frozen fish and shellfish can put quality and variety on the table all year long from top fishing grounds as far apart as Iceland, Alaska and Australia.

“Given advancements in freezing technology and improved handling requirements on fishing vessels and in processing plants, a lot of frozen seafood is actually better and closer to its live, natural state than if it were delivered ‘fresh,’” says John van Amerongen, marketing communications specialist with Trident Seafoods.

Correct handling, timely freezing and careful glazing can suspend high-quality seafood at its peak of freshness.”

The industry uses three primary freezing methods, described in descending order of quality and cost:
Frozen at sea is “the Rolls Royce” of processing, says Tom Sherman, VP of marketing for Icelandic USA, a seafood company. The fish is cleaned, water-glazed and quick-frozen in modern processing facilities on board the trawler within hours after it’s caught. At the plant, the product is individually quick frozen (IQF) and packed—never breaking the cold chain.

Land frozen seafood is gutted and iced down on the boat, then processed on shore. Fillets are glazed and individually frozen before packing and storing in temperature-controlled warehouses.

Block frozen fish is also processed on land; the fish are machine filleted and frozen solid in a block of ice, causing some breakage and deterioration in processing and thawing.


Making the cut

Product cuttings offer foodservice buyers a chance to judge and compare quality. Although a large and complex range of criteria apply when evaluating seafood products, these experts share concise guidelines in four big categories.

Shrimp

Inspect package. Note ingredients, country of origin, count/pound.

Weigh product for gross weight (shrimp and glaze). Rinse to remove glaze; weigh again for net weight. Compare figure to that stated on package.

Look at color. Pigmentation should be vibrant; poor color indicates low grade or mishandling.

Note broken pieces/tails. This indicates excessive handling.

Examine shelled and deveined shrimp. The cut to remove the vein should not be too deep or too shallow.

Check consistency of size. Weigh 10 largest shrimp and divide by weight of 10 smallest; uniformity ratios are typically 1.5 and below.

Taste it cooked. It should have clean flavor and firm texture.

--Rob Kragh, Director of Business Development for Chicken of the Sea Frozen Foods, El Segundo, California

Salmon

For whole fish: Look for clear eyes, bright red gills and elastic skin. Fish should be covered with a silky coating—not sticky slime.

For fillets and steaks: Open case and insert thermometer between two fish portions. Temperature should be 40°-44°F.

Examine case for excess moisture. Water carries pathogens; fresh salmon doesn’t require much water in shipping.

Unwrap the fish and smell. Fresh salmon should have a slight melon aroma; no strong fish odor.

Note appearance. Skin color varies but the skin should never be wrinkled or dried out. Wild salmon flesh is generally deeper red; farmed salmon is pinker.

Feel texture. Wild salmon has a higher fat content and tends to be a bit softer than farmed; both should be resilient and moist.

Cook it. Fresh salmon doesn’t give off a lot of water in cooking; texture should be moist.

--Michael Priebel, purchaser for Inland Seafood, Atlanta

Crabcakes

Check packages. They should be sealed airtight with no sign of freezer burn or leakage.

Read label. Crabmeat should be first listed (most abundant) ingredient—not breading or fillers.

Ask about percentage of crab in the cake. Aim for 70 percent crab to 30 percent wet mix for premium product and at least 50-50 for good quality.

Know the crab used. Ranging from least to most expensive is claw meat, white body meat, back fin and jumbo lump crab. Some companies mix several types.

Spec the size that’s right for your menu. Crab cakes range from 3⁄4 ounce to 4 ounces or larger (entree size).

Look for a rough texture. The crab pieces should be visible and not hidden by breading.

Thaw at room temperature. Off odors are not good. Cooked cakes should hold together.

--Donald Manning, director of training for Phillips Foods, Baltimore, Maryland

Breaded and/or portioned groundfish fillets

Examine the case. Labels should clearly note specs, ingredients and country of origin.

Check the packaging before it’s opened. Leaky or stained boxes indicate improper handling.

Unwrap the product and take a sniff. There should be no pronounced fishy odor or ammonia smell—both indicate poor handling and seafood past its prime.

Look at texture. Although this characteristic varies from soft to stiff depending on the species, fillets should appear fresh and firm.

Notice breading adhesion. “Blowouts” or bare spots on breaded products indicate improperly applied coating and possible thawing and refreezing.

Cook and sample the product. The final test of quality and freshness is in the taste.

--Jon Fridjonsson, VP of sourcing for Icelandic USA, Newport News, Virginia

Tech Tip

When seafood prices shoot up, Ty Fredrickson, purchasing director for Gastronomy, a restaurant group in Salt Lake City, is faced with a familiar dilemma: raise menu prices or eat the cost. Now Eatec software offers a third choice. The recently installed inventory management program interfaces with Gastronomy’s POS, accounting and purchasing systems. CFO Eldon Payne expects Eatec to “help us make smarter buys by instantly recognizing price increases, measuring the sales mix and computing cost factors.”


Fish-buying tips from distributors 

Paul Saval, president, Saval Foodservice, Washington D.C. area

Henry Lovejoy, president, EcoFish, Dover, New Hampshire

John van Amerongen, Trident Seafoods, Seattle, Washington

How can restaurant operators be smarter about sourcing seafood?

Saval: Country of origin labeling can help you evaluate quality in relation to price. Very low prices may mean that the product is coming from Latin America or Asia where standards aren’t as strict.
Lovejoy: Buy from many sources but make sure fishing practices are monitored well. For example, there’s a European-certified shrimpery in Ecuador that farms sustainable, organic shrimp, but most farms in China and Vietnam don’t qualify.
van Amerongen: Product identity is key. If you’re spending good money to buy a particular fish and celebrate it on your menu, you don’t want to get ripped off. Reputable suppliers have the ability to trace their product.

How can restaurants make the most of their seafood buying dollars?

van Amerongen: Net weight accuracy is important. The term means the weight of the product less the packaging and water glaze. If you contract to buy 10 pounds of king crab, you should wind up with 10 pounds of king crab.
Lovejoy: Many operators want to source sustainably, but they don’t know where to start. In the near future, a greater variety of sustainable seafood will be available frozen at more competitive prices.
Saval: Frozen portions and breaded products offer great savings in time and waste.

What ensures supply chain safety?

Lovejoy: There are two major safety issues—contamination of the fish and destruction of the environment. Buying fillets and steaks from smaller-size halibut, tuna and other fish is one way to cut down on pcbs and mercury; the larger the species grows, the more toxins it contains. Groups like Chef’s Collaborative and the Marine Stewardship Council are making strides on the environmental front, and operators can do their part by staying informed about sustainability.
van Amerongen: Buy from facilities that are HACCP-approved—they are regularly inspected by the government. Some processors go a step further and employ third-party auditors to represent their customers’ interests. Traceability is also a big issue; shipments that are bar-coded can be tracked from source to plate.

How are prices trending?

Saval: Hurricane Katrina destroyed the Gulf shrimp business, but now it’s booming again and prices are falling.
Lovejoy: High fuel costs have recently jacked up the price of doing business and fishing fleets have to pass on that cost.
van Amerongen: Wild stocks in Alaska have been managed sustainably for decades and some are at historically high levels of abundance. But prices are naturally trending upward due to demand.

Any tips to maximize seafood sales?

Saval: Signaturize a value-added product to boost the menu price and profit margin. Corporate chefs can work with operators on menu ideas and food costing.
van Amerongen: The right product fit saves an operator money all year long. Work with your supplier’s sales and R&D staffs to nail portioning and flavor profiles.
Lovejoy: Guests are interested in the
origin of their food. Telling the story of where the fish came from, who harvested it and why it’s special adds value.

Fish in the Future

The USDA is forecasting a 6.58 percent per capita increase in seafood consumption by 2020. That means the seafood market will have to grow by over one billion pounds in the next 14 years or so, industry expert Howard Johnson predicts. How will this impact the way restaurants buy fish? 

  • The Economic Research Service of the USDA forecasts that seafood will experience the largest market growth in volume of the major proteins, with away-from-home consumption increasing 30 percent by 2020.
  • The top fish and shellfish consumed will be shrimp, salmon, tilapia and catfish—all produced by aquaculture. Currently, farmed seafood accounts for about 20 percent of the supply; by 2020, it is likely to be 30 or 40 percent.
  • Cultivated alternatives to wild species will gain ground. These include barramundi, Pacific halibut, black cod, cobia and Atlantic cod.
  • Wal-Mart, which sells 30 percent of all seafood in the U.S., is moving toward sourcing a 100 percent sustainable supply. This will prod the industry to adapt more responsible practices, increasing the sustainable supply and decreasing price.
  • Overall seafood prices should rise due to strong global demand. The International Food Policy Research Institute expects finfish to increase by 4 to 15 percent and shellfish to go up by 16 percent.

Down on the catfish farm

The Marine Room, La Jolla, California
Bernard Guillas, executive chef
Menu item: Pomelo Kalbi Glazed Barbecued Jumbo Shrimp
Buying strategy: I prefer U-10 (10 per pound) whole Mexican white jumbo shrimp for their pleasing texture, nutty flavor and perfect fat content. They cook with limited shrinkage, then pop right out of the shell for a nice presentation. I’ve also tried the U-10 tiger prawns from China, but they’re not as flavorful.

Tarpon Bend, Coral Gables, Florida
Peter Boulukos, chef-partner
Menu item: Yellowfin Tuna Salad
Buying strategy: I use several suppliers to get what one of my purveyors calls “Tarpon Bend quality.” Most of what I buy is local; fishermen even walk in carrying that day’s catch. To make sure prep cooks don’t leave any money on the knife, I developed software that calculates expected yields on various species.

Firebirds Rocky Mountain Grill, Charlotte, North Carolina-based
Steve Sturm, executive chef
Menu item: Pecan-Crusted Trout with Cilantro-Peach Salsa Buying strategy: The average entree at Firebirds is $16. To make our margins, we often rely on seafood that doesn’t fluctuate much in price but delivers consistent quality and taste. We buy fresh, butterflied trout fillets for this dish from a reputable trout farming company. The product performs well every time.

Gastronomy, Inc., Salt Lake City, Utah
Will Pliler, executive chef
Menu item: Lemon Pepper Herb Seared Halibut Filet
Buying strategy: Gastronomy set up a separate purchasing department to streamline ordering and allow executive chefs to do what they do best—supervise cooks. To keep costs in check, we work with several Alaskan fisheries and lock in prices for the year with our broadliner on 40 or so frozen seafood items.

Arthur’s Landing, Weehawken, New Jersey
Michael Haimowitz, executive chef
Menu Item: Bouillabaisse
Buying strategy: The benefit of buying seasonally is that you end up with a better supply at stable prices. I get deliveries six days a week, mostly from East Coast distributors. To keep costs down, I stay away from trendy fish and focus on items like halibut, shrimp, scallops and cod. Bouillabaisse is our #3 seller.

Postrio, San Francisco
Jordan Grosser, chef de cuisine
Menu Item: Salmon with Toasted Almond-Lavender Sauce
Buying strategy: We source both farmed and wild salmon—the choice depends on the application. For this dish, farmed salmon from Scotland has the perfect fat content and marbling to produce a nice sear and carmelization. The wild variety has more muscle and works better for our smoked salmon.


On the Catfish Farm

In Greenwood, Mississippi, Paul Dees farms what has become one of the most successful cultivated seafood products. “There’s more demand for catfish than there is supply right now,” says Dees, who as COO of Dillard & Company oversees the catfish cycle from egg hatching to processing.

Catfish are raised in land-based clay ponds filled with water pumped from alluvial aquifers and fed a corn and soybean-based diet; it’s a sustainable, eco-friendly aquacultural system.

Before Dees’ offspring are harvested from each pond, samples are checked for flavor. “We look for certain consistent characteristics, much like a sommelier does when tasting wine. If the fish are not ready, we wait for them.”

With its competitive price and mild taste, catfish has found its place on QSR and midscale menus, especially items like breaded strips and seasoned portions. But Dees sees a market in fine-dining—a void farmers are filling with products that look more impressive on the plate. A double-skinned Delicata fillet and a shank fillet that’s marketed by Sysco are newer entries.

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