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Reeling them in at the Boston Seafood Show

At North America's largest seafood show, talk turned to value-add, and telling a fish story that's actually true

Fish has long befuddled consumers. How to prepare it, how to handle it and, most importantly, what to do about the smell? At the recent International Boston Seafood Show that conundrum was on the minds of buyers and exhibitors alike.

Fortunately, the show held answers in the form of steamable pouches, pre-shucked oysters and microwavable meals featuring frozen fish in one section and sauce, pasta and vegetables in another. From booth to booth and panel to panel, value-add meals were touted as seafood’s solution and quite possibly its saviour.

“We are at the second generation of folks that don’t know how to cook,” says Jeff Josselyn, senior director of meat and seafood procurement at grocery chain Ahold USA. “They are looking for 1-2-3 step solutions and want to purchase products that provide them.”

That revelation was reflected on the show floor. Companies like Yihe Seafood of California, Australis Aquaculture of Massachusetts and Phillips Foods, Inc. of Maryland have invested millions into value-add, which many believe is poised to take over the frozen food aisle in the next two years.

“There’s more opportunity for profit in quick-to-fix meals,” says John Hanson, in charge of U.S. sales and operations for Yihe Seafood. The company debuted five new frozen meals under the Oceanside Cuisine label at the seafood show.

So bullish is Yihe on ready-to-cook entrées that the seafood processor is opening a plant in Seattle this fall dedicated to expanding a line that features an innovative microwave steam system called StrataPack.

“We haven’t seen fish presented in this way. It’s not just a filler, this is really a gourmet meal,” said Hanson, as show-goers flocked to his booth to scoop up samples of creamy dill and lemon salmon on penne with broccoli and red peppers.

An excited advocate of the value-add trend is Erald de Groot, director of Dutch fish sourcing outfit Poseidon Food. “Because of the recession you get less quantity, but better quality,” de Groot says, singling out Maryland-based Phillips’ new Seafood Skillet meal series. “This is restaurant food for people at home.”

Another hit this year in Boston came from Nova Scotia. St. Mary’s River Smokehouses won Best New Retail Product for its oven-smoked Atlantic Salmon Stix.

What’s so innovative about the hot smoked, fully cooked, ready-to-eat fish? “We put it on a stick,” says Alan Archibald, president of St. Mary’s River parent company, Lochiel Enterprises, whose chili mango, spiced maple and sweet barbecue flavours caught the judges’ attention.

But, no matter how delicious the end result, grocers have to get shoppers to toss the meals into their carts. One way the industry is addressing this is with gussied up packaging.

In a pop-up lounge in the middle of the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, Tastee Choice unveiled a handsome pouch for cooked, premium shrimp under the Choice Harvest label. Resembling a pound of organic coffee, complete with artisanal labelling, its “farm raised with love” product may turn heads in the frozen aisle.

Cosmetic advances aside, experts like Josselyn reminded an attentive crowd of fish buyers and supermarket executives “the best vehicle to engaging customers is an engaging employee behind the counter.” Grocers need to pay attention to how fish are arranged, packaged, sold and discussed. “The seafood department can define the store image,” says Josselyn.

Of course, telling seafood’s story is more complex now. Thirty years ago, 91 per cent of fish was wild-caught; today only half comes from the sea; the rest is farm-raised.

To combat confusion, grocers should educate staff on origin, sustainability and labelling. “Be 100 per cent transparent. Let them know what, where and why we are doing it,” Josselyn says. “It’s about quality, quality, quality and being consistent to build trust.”

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