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Fish finger producer switching to pollock

The move by Birds Eye of Britain comes amid concerns about dwindling stocks of cod.

August 13, 2007|Fiona Harvey | Financial Times

The humble fish finger -- a staple of children's meals in Britain -- is to receive a makeover in response to declining fish stocks.

Cod will be replaced in Birds Eye fish fingers by pollock, after warnings from experts that cod stocks are perilously low. Pollock, a white fish found in Alaskan waters, has a similar texture to cod but its stocks are more plentiful.

Birds Eye, which produces 80% of Britain's fish fingers, is switching part of its offerings from cod to pollock fish fingers in September. The company, which was bought from Unilever by private equity group Permira last year, has sold about $100 million worth of fish fingers in Britain so far this year.

Pollock is already in the company's fish fingers sold on the European mainland.

The company will test the waters by replacing 4,000 metric tons of cod with pollock. About 17,000 tons of cod are used in British fish fingers every year. If sales are successful, pollock could become the main ingredient.

Martin Glenn, chief executive of Birds Eye, said the motivation behind the move was "enlightened self-interest."

Stocks of cod are under so much pressure that big food companies no longer take their catch from the North Sea but from the Baltic, Glenn said, but those fisheries also are under strain.

Glenn said he was acting for economic rather than moral reasons: "In a competitive market, it's very hard to take a moral stance. . . . But [cod] is less abundant than north Alaskan pollock, and people are desperate to eat more fish."

Pollock is cheaper than cod. Birds Eye conceded it would save money in the longer term by switching to pollock.

However, in the short term the move would be "cost-neutral," Glenn said, because the company will have to change its fishing, sourcing and processing practices, change its packaging and change the public's tastes from cod to pollock.

Scientists warned last year that all commercial fisheries would be exhausted by 2048 if the rate of plunder of the oceans continued.

The problem is compounded because shoppers tend to have fixed buying patterns and are reluctant to try new fish outside the popular staples of cod, tuna, salmon and prawns, which make up the bulk of Britain's fish sales.

Stocks of cod off the Grand Banks of Canada's Newfoundland collapsed in the early 1990s when they were fished out to serve the country's huge fish processing industry and have yet to recover. Experts fear a similar near-extinction awaits cod in other parts of the Atlantic.

Glenn said it made sense to diversify the source of fish fingers to a more sustainable fish. "We would be crazy not to try to do it," he said. "We think there will be a fish finger franchise for a long time to come."

Fish fingers were introduced in Britain as a convenience food in the 1950s.

Clarence Birdseye developed the plate froster, a device enabling food to be quickly frozen, in the 1920s. Fish cut into even-sized fillets were among the best foods preserved by freezing. The first fish fingers were introduced in Britain by Birds Eye in 1955 and quickly became popular.

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