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Seafood Industry Criticized for One That Got Away

August 06, 1987|DANIEL P. PUZO | Times Staff Writer

The seafood industry's processing practices, quality control and pricing structures came under attack recently from a trade magazine that covers the domestic and international fishery marketplace.

The criticism, an editorial in the current issue of Seafood Leader magazine, addressed why U.S. per capita fish consumption in 1986 failed to reach previously anticipated levels.

Industry analysts had projected major gains as a result of changes in Americans' eating habits, fueled, in part, by research indicating that diets high in some types of fish seem to correspond with lower incidences of heart disease.

Although both sales and consumption reached record levels, the actual growth rate was considered disappointing. Americans ate more than 3.5 billion pounds of fish and shellfish last year, or 14.7 pounds per person, a 2% increase over 1985 levels.

"So why is consumption stalled when consumers are clamoring for seafood? Two reasons: Demand has driven prices of many species through the roof--and there still is a lot of lousy fish around," Seafood Leader stated.

Pricing and Quality Problems

Peter Redmayne, the Seattle-based magazine's editor and publisher, elaborated on the industry's growing pricing and quality problems during a phone interview.

Fish, primarily due to overharvesting, should be viewed as a more volatile, unpredictable commodity than the traditional protein sources, such as chicken or beef. The difference being that fish are unable to reproduce fast enough to keep pace with the record catches of the past five years. On the other hand, the poultry and livestock industries are more market responsive: increasing or decreasing production to meet demand, according to Redmayne.

Other factors also come into play, including the increased worldwide demand for fish, particularly from Japan and Western Europe and a weaker U.S. dollar in international currency exchanges.

Any one of these factors, such as declining stocks of a particular fishery, can trigger a chain reaction that produces poorer quality at higher prices in local markets.

"In some cases, there are not as many fish as there used to be," Redmayne said. "So, boats are out at sea for longer periods of time in order to load up. And I can't think of a case where any fish species actually acquires value as it lies (on board) for days prior to being unloaded. Generally, American (fishermen) don't have the respect for fish that they do abroad."

The quality issue alone has become acute as the market for fresh fish grows. Redmayne said there is only so much of the world's total catch that can be sold fresh, yet some fishermen attempt to increase this percentage without regard to the ultimate condition of the product.

Quality has indeed been a concern of the seafood industry for more than a decade, acknowledged Pete Carlson, manager of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute in Juneau.

"The industry has made great strides in this area," he said. "And it remains a real priority."

Carlson said progress is evidenced by improved boat technology, which allows crews to operate automatic processing systems that, among other things, chill fish to proper storage temperatures almost immediately after they leave the sea.

"Fifteen years ago you didn't have any of that; everything was done by hand," he said.

The companion issue to quality is pricing, according to Redmayne, who said it is another area that needs improvement in order for the market to grow. Food stores, for instance, should pay greater attention to their seafood.

A Need for Better Marketing

"Supermarkets have to learn to market fish better. If they are going to charge these high prices then they should be high prices for good-quality fish," Redmayne said. "I think the markets have taken consumers up (in price) as high as they can take them. We need better quality or better marketing to justify the prices these stores are getting. Or people will switch back to meat."

Carlson disputed the excessive price claim and said there are more than 500 processors in Alaska, and the sheer numbers preclude any effort to control pricing.

"I don't think seafood prices are too high," he said. "Demand sets the price, and people are demanding more fish. And they are also aware of good seafood versus bad. And they are demanding the good seafood."

Despite the problems that seem to be brought on by the industry's recent success, Redmayne remains optimistic about seafood's future.

"There is still tremendous opportunity for people in this business, but it will be for those with a quality product. Consumers today are more educated and they know how to better judge what is actually a good fish," he said.

Fishing Frenzy--Alaska's halibut fishery is one area in which Redmayne believes measures should be taken to both improve quality and stabilize pricing. The species has been plagued this year by short-term gluts and poor processing.

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