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Fishing For Answers

Americans are finally getting on board and heeding nutrition recommendations to eat more seafood. Recent figures from the National Fisheries Institute indicate that consumption is up 11 percent since 2001—16.5 pounds per person in 2006 compared to 14.8 pounds five years earlier. While shrimp is still the No. 1 choice, species like tilapia and pollock are quickly gaining fans. The good news for operators is that a lot of that eating is taking place in restaurants; most home cooks still feel insecure around a fish fillet.

Although health professionals applaud the trend, the increased demand poses some purchasing challenges for restaurant kitchens. Topping the list: sourcing a sustainable, safe supply—especially in light of recent bans on Chinese imports—while keeping menu prices in line.

Can sustainability be profitable? 

While most operators would prefer to menu only sustainable seafood, it’s often been more expensive to source. Sam King, CEO of King’s Seafood Company, a restaurant and distribution operation, is trying to change that. Not only is he concerned about sustainability as an environmental issue, his southern California chain of eleven casual King’s Fish Houses and five upscale eateries must have a constant supply of well-priced fish—a challenge as wild stocks dwindle. In partnership with the Aquarium of the Pacific, King helped launch the Sustainable Seafood Forum, a nonpartisan organization that advises restaurateurs and the public about seafood choices that are sustainable and affordable. Recommendations are based on three criteria: the fish must be healthy (no mercury or toxins); the fish must be environmentally sound; and the fish must be socio-economically sound (contribute to the community.)

The recommended seafood are documented as coming from either sustainable wild stocks or environmentally friendly farms that meet the Forum’s standards. King’s doesn’t sell grouper, orange roughy, Pacific cod, Chilean sea bass or other endangered species, but included on the “approved” list are farmed and wild salmon, farm-raised trout, shad, whitefish and mussels—all of which can be gentler on the wallet. While aquaculture (especially salmon farming) has taken its hits, “we take a moderate view,” says Matt Stein, chief seafood officer in charge of purchasing at King’s. “If the only salmon I served was from certified wild fisheries, half of my customers couldn’t afford it. We source from farms in Chile that use advanced aquacultural techniques.”

Conflicting information makes it difficult to make smart choices. Bottom line—deal with suppliers who support sustainability and stay informed. “Challenge your suppliers about their sources, whether you’re buying farmed or wild seafood,” suggests Stein. “Find out what’s in the feed, the fishing practices used and how the fish is stored after being caught.”

Steve LaHaie, VP of Shaw’s Crab House in Chicago and Schaumburg, Illinois, follows that advice. Shaw’s now features some fish that are certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council, including wild Alaskan king salmon and Pacific halibut, and many species supplied by well-managed, trusted fisheries. And one of Shaw’s suppliers, Plitt Seafood Company, contracts with QuikPak, an Alaskan free-trade fishery run by Eskimos, to bring in their local wild salmon. “The season was only three weeks long, but the quality was superior,” says LaHaie. “It was a win-win for all.”

What about health and safety?

Warnings about mercury and pcbs in fish have also made headlines. The main newsmakers are the larger wild fish that have lived a long time and build up higher mercury levels. These include tuna, swordfish, marlin, shark, tilefish and grouper. But the media tends to use scare tactics or rely on old stats, claims Stein of King’s Fish House. To see for itself, King’s worked with a team of Purdue University scientists to blind test swordfish, shark and ono (wahoo).

“After 150 biopsies, we found that levels of mercury double and triple as weight goes over 250 and 300 pounds,” Stein explains. “Now we spec a 225-pound limit on these species.” The restaurant group also initiated a guest education program, drawing from the expertise of organizations such as the Institute of Medicine at the National Academies of Science and Harvard University’s School of Public Health. Materials include a placemat that illustrates the health benefits of fish and offers guidelines for those who should limit their intake—pregnant and nursing women, children under six and those with compromised immune systems. “For others, the health benefits of fish far outweigh the risk of toxicity from pcbs or mercury,” Stein says.

Safety along the supply chain

The FDA, along with state agencies, regulates the safety of fish farmed, caught and/or processed in the United States. But to meet demand, around 80 percent of our seafood is imported—a figure that’s problematic when the exporting countries don’t enforce FDA regulations. This occurred in the past with Vietnam, but that government has since become stricter about standards. Now China is in the hot seat.

In June, the FDA detained shipments of Chinese farm-raised catfish, basa, shrimp, dace (related to carp) and eel because of residues from non-approved anti-microbial drugs. Although the low levels found do not pose immediate health risks, the FDA erred on the side of caution. With the fish being checked at port, it will be easier to pinpoint the guilty parties.

While China does have issues enforcing regulations, not all Chinese aquaculture facilities are breaking the rules. Fishery Products International, an American supplier that does business in Asia, sources from packers who buy from larger, eco-friendly farms rather than small ponds. The company also makes sure its processing plants limit environmental impact and conform to HACCP regs. “Restaurants must check that their suppliers have a certificate of analysis for all Chinese seafood products. This will identify compounds that are of concern,” explains David Foley, FPI’s director of quality assurance. “A supplier should also have teams on the ground in China to regularly audit packing plants for HACCP compliance.” 

Sourcing strategies

Sure, you want to source sustainably, offer variety and keep food costs in line. These strategies can help.

  • Buy from National Fishery Institute members. The NFI’s Economic Integrity Initiative requires its 400 members to commit to fair business practices. These include truth in labeling as to country of origin, weights and counts (no overglazing fish with ice) and identity of species (no substitutions.) The newly formed Better Seafood Bureau oversees and enforces the standards.
  • Work with your purveyor to hook specials. Farmed fish generally come in at a gentler wholesale price, but wild species can be good buys when they’re running. At Fish City Grill, an 18-unit concept based in Dallas, the regular menu offers mostly farm-raised fish while the chalkboard specials boast wild varieties. “This mix allows us more flexibility,” says founder Bill Bayne. “We can buy what is available in the right amounts and don’t have to price too high.”
  • Buy local, if possible. Restaurants near the coasts can get good deals buying direct from day-boat fishermen, but even Midwest locations, like Shaw’s in Chicago, menus local lake fish (yellow perch, whitefish and walleye pike) in season.
  • Arrange frequent deliveries. High-end restaurants get daily deliveries along with frequent overnight packs of exotic fish. But casual places with mainstream demands can get the same deal from trusted suppliers. Fish City Grill eliminates waste and assures freshness with deliveries six days a week from Dallas’ Fruge’s Seafood.
  • Consider frozen. “Technological advances and product care—from harvest to processing and storage—have improved dramatically,” claims Bret Lynch, corporate chef for Ocean Beauty, a Seattle seafood supplier. He adds that frozen offers the benefits of consistency, overhead controls, customization and locked-in pricing. Choose IQF for best quality.
  • Don’t purchase on price alone. Custom-cut fillets and value-added products with on-trend flavor profiles may cost a bit more, but they save on labor costs and can improve margins.
  • Lock in contracts. Work with at least one large vendor for consistency of supply and buying clout. They can lock in prices for individual specs, such as catfish or shrimp, if an across-the-board annual contract is not possible. 

Where are prices headed?

Ask most operators and they’ll tell you the cost of seafood has gone through the roof. “We’re surrounded by water and we’re still paying top dollar,” says Michael La Scola, chef-owner of American Seasons in Nantucket. “I can only imagine what’s happening in the Midwest.” Quotas on ocean-caught fish, the effects of weather and the popularity of seafood in restaurants are all jacking up prices. “Fish is a lot more reliant on supply and demand than other proteins,” La Scola adds.

Even so, the supply/demand curve has remained pretty steady over the last year, notes Robert Santangelo, market news reporter with the National Marine Fisheries Service. Stocks in the Southeast are recovering nicely after the 2005 hurricanes and the Atlantic coast is showing only moderate fluctuations. In fact, the U.S. supply of fish fillets and steaks was at its highest in 2006, the last year for which data was collected. But prices are trending higher for most species, regardless of availability.

The burgeoning aquaculture industry is helping to boost supply and control drastic price fluctuations. Over the last decade, farm-raised seafood products have grown from a relatively small portion of total U.S. seafood imports to become the dominant source for certain fish, according to an April, 2007, report from the USDA’s Economic Research Service. Tilapia experienced the greatest surge—imports were up 17 percent in 2006 over the previous year. The USDA predicts that aquaculture imports should continue to face an expanding market through 2007 as the prices for competing proteins (meat and poultry) are forecast to go higher. As of this writing, there’s little evidence that China’s export limitations are having an effect on supply or prices, but that could change if the FDA’s ban remains in place. It might be an opportune time for American catfish, tilapia and salmon farmers to get a bigger piece of the foodservice market. 


Green light your fish choices

Opinions as to which species are safe and sustainable differ. Some conservation groups are more radical than others and are quick to put questionable seafood on “red alert.” It’s up to you to get information from your supplier, weigh the scientific data and check resources.

Sustainable Seafood Forum: A partnership of restaurateurs, suppliers, retailers and the Aquarium of the Pacific; www.aquariumofpacific.org/conservation

Seafood Choices Alliance: Affiliated with the Monterey Bay Aquarium; issues a sourcing guide to sustainable choices; www.seafoodchoices.com

Marine Stewardship Council: Promotes responsible fishing practices; www.msc.org

NOAA: As one of its functions, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration protects and preserves marine resources; www.noaa.gov/fisheries

Fish Scam: Sponsored by the Center for Consumer Freedom, they provide updates on seafood safety; www.fishscam.com 

 

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