Counter argument

Varieties of seafood

Dr Martin Jaffa asks: Is the consumer’s reluctance to try different fish actually the fault of the industry and retailers?

An article in the Guardian newspaper looked at why people reject so much of the bountiful catches from the sea in favour of the same few species. The article asks how reliance on just a handful of popular fish species can be changed.

This is a question which I have seen asked repeatedly over many years and I am afraid that the Guardian’s long article does not provide any solution. Instead, it suggests that consumers wanting to move away from the Big Five should engage with their local fishmonger and ask for advice or consult with the Marine Conservation Society’s Good Fish Guide to seek more sustainable choices.

Unfortunately, those who pose these questions have no understanding that the people eating these popular species do not buy their fish from a fishmonger and are not ever likely to. Certainly, they are unlikely to have even heard of the Good Fish Guide, let alone consult it. In addition, the Guardian also wrongly assumes that local fishmongers and the MCS are even aware of the dynamics of the consumer market.

The article theorises as to why consumers in the developed world have become more reliant on a handful of fish and seafood species, but the reasons are simple. For example, the fish and seafood sector has been extremely slow to react, if at all, to gradual changes in consumer behaviour and demand in post WW2 Britain.

By comparison, the Guardian article highlights that the Marine Conservation Society has said that consumer palates have been dulled by the way that the public shop. They suggest that our diets have been homogenised especially around seafood probably due to our over-reliance on supermarkets for our food.

I would suggest that this is an oversimplification on the part of an organisation whose staff are probably too young to recognise the way that the market developed. Undoubtedly, supermarkets have aided the move towards convenience but when it comes to fish, they focused on a traditional fish counter as this was perceived to be part of the theatre of retailing. What it didn’t offer was a modern view of convenience.

Pollock dish

Pollock dish

(In)convenience stores
Supermarket fish counters came late to the convenience party by starting to offer boneless fillets etc, by which time it was too late. It is likely that a whole generation moved away from inconvenient fish to other more convenient foods and by the time that retailers started to understand what consumers really wanted, fish had already disappeared from many diets. Eventually, supermarkets responded with the development of chilled, prepacked fish and, as such products started to attract consumers, the supermarket fish counter went into decline.

However, the real gamechanger was the arrival of farmed salmon to the supermarket. Its predictable quality, availability and price meant that salmon was ripe for development as a convenience fish that has never really been matched.

Salmon continues to dominate the chilled fish section, together with prawns. The other fish that make up the Big Five tend to be used more in frozen and ambient products than in chilled. What is interesting is that it is the frozen sector that is riper for change than chilled, yet when there was a chance to encourage the use of other species, the sector did not deliver.

Some years ago, one of the NGOs warned that cod stocks were about the collapse and as cod was widely used in frozen breaded and battered products, this caused an issue. In response the frozen food companies changed to an alternative white fish. However, rather than seek locally caught alternatives, imported Alaska pollock became the fish of choice. More recently, as cod stocks have recovered, as well as supplies sourced from Norway and Iceland, cod has been readopted by the frozen food companies as the fish of choice. Yet, consumers appeared happy to buy frozen fish products made from Alaskan pollock, so the change back to cod was not in response to consumer demand.

Interestingly, to maximise the margins there has been a more recent change away from cod. Yet again, however, local alternatives such as whiting or coley have been disregarded in favour of another imported fish, Pangasius – farmed Vietnamese catfish. This trend is not consumer driven.

Varieties of seafood

Varieties of seafood

Thinking outside the box
Over many years, I have watched various attempts to persuade consumers to choose alternative species and all have failed. Seafish, the public body supporting the industry and who should be driving change, pulled out of marketing because their fee payers could not see outside their own little markets.

My own view is that I don’t see a problem with reliance on a few species. If consumers are eating just salmon and cod, then that it is better than not eating any fish at all. I believe that all these articles do, such as the one in the Guardian, is deter consumers from eating any fish, not convince them to change.

I would argue that to get consumers to eat a wider variety of fish needs thinking well outside the box. Unfortunately, the existing industry is not organised to do this. I once proposed that the best way to encourage alternative fish consumption is that the government should source alternative species for their institutions. A funding proposal to the Seafood Innovation Fund to explore this idea was rejected in favour of one that renamed the flatfish megrim as Cornish sole!

Whilst articles about the need to eat alternative species appear regularly in the press, those who advocate such change do nothing to instigate such change. If NGOs like MCS want consumers to change their eating habits, then they should do something about it, not just talk.

Another article in the Guardian included recommendations from the MCS as to alternatives to the Big Five. For farmed salmon, they suggest farmed trout. Other than the fact that trout are not farmed on the same scale as salmon, it is unclear what benefit such a change would bring. Trout are lovely fish to eat and should be eaten in their own right, not as a swop. As an alternative to prawns, the recommendation is to eat mussels. Whilst it is unclear how such a substitution would work in many recipes, mussels too should be eaten in their own right, not as an alternative. The best alternative is for the public to eat what they like. Then they can’t go wrong at all!

Saab Seaye


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