Frozen salmon. Photo credit: Jason Houston
In seafood, much like other parts of the food system, global supply chains dominate. For the average American consumer this means nearly 90 percent of their seafood is imported and up to 32 percent ( or $2.1 billion USD) of imported wild-caught seafood is illegal, unregulated, and unreported. In some cases, even fish that is caught in domestic waters is exported for processing to China, only to be reimported and resold to the US market.
Meanwhile, despite having access to reportedly healthy fish stocks compared to other global fisheries, our domestic, small-boat community fishermen who utilize sustainable harvest practices often struggle to compete.
One way these community-based fishermen have risen to the challenge is by investing in direct marketing to sell their catch, often freezing their fish at temperatures -40°F and colder, either on-boat or immediately after dropping their catch at dock. This method, sometimes called flash-freezing, when paired with careful handling of the fish produces a high quality end product to eaters. Advantages of this freezing process allow community-based fishing business to avoid the volatility inherent in the fresh-fish market, extend the shelf life of their catch, reduce waste, lower carbon emissions, and deliver what seafood eaters are demanding: delicious food.
Despite the careful handling, attentive processing practices, and good quality, consumers still demonstrate a marked preference for fresh fish, often attributing “fresh” with a product that is healthier, higher quality, and even more local.
This pervasive preference, along with the desire to build more stable markets for community fishermen, prompted a recent study we conducted in partnership with Oregon State University’s Food Innovation Center, and Michigan-based seafood certification company, Seafood Analytics. The partners set out to address two key assumptions: That frozen fish is less fresh and less tasty than its unfrozen counterpart.
Conducted using samples of salmon and cod harvested by community fishermen from Port Orford Sustainable Seafood in Oregon and Alaskan’s Own out of Sitka Alaska, the study compared their flash-frozen fish with fresh-from-the-grocery-store samples.
One day prior to a blind sensory test, the frozen salmon and cod fillets were stored in a 36-degree refrigerator to thaw. Fresh samples of the same species were purchased the morning of the test from high end grocery stores. The samples were then baked without seasoning, assigned a three-digit code, and served in random order to participants.
More than 100 consumers participated in blind sensory-testing to scrutinize the acceptability of each product across a range of factors including appearance, aroma, flavor, texture, quality, overall liking, and purchase intent. Contrary to current consumer perceptions, the flash-frozen fish was regarded as either more desirable or statistically equal to fresh fish. Participants noted a, “good, clean, almost buttery flavor” and said the unseasoned, previously frozen, fish samples tasted like they were, “recently caught and fresh out of the ocean.”
In addition, 57 percent of the consumers tested rated the quality of the frozen cod at “above average” to “excellent.” Meanwhile, 70 percent rated the fresh cod as having a quality that was “average” to “poor.” The frozen cod was also rated by a quarter of the participants as a better product than what they normally purchase at retail. Conversely, 45 percent felt the fresh cod samples were worse than what they normally buy with two-thirds reporting that they would “definitely” or “probably not” buy the fresh cod.
Prior to the consumer sensory-testing, partners used Seafood Analytics’ Seafood-Certified Quality Reader (CQR) to measure for product quality and freshness.
To measure the freshness and quality, the CQR device sends a low frequency electrical current through the fish and collects data based on its relative conductivity and assigns it a Certified Quality Number (CQN). A higher CQN correlates to a fresher, higher-quality fish: A fish just harvested will register a high score of 100. A fish that is several weeks old will draw a score of less than 10.
As a fish degrades, two things happen: its tissue loses non-conductive cell membranes, and gains conductive fluids. A fish that has begun to decompose, or has not been handled carefully, will contain more conductive fluid because its cell membranes have begun to break down. Essentially, it gets mushy. The cell membranes of a freshly-caught fish are still intact, making it firm and resistant to conductivity.
Not only did consumers prefer the frozen fish, but the flash-frozen products also rated higher in quality and freshness, according to the CQR. During the study, flash-frozen fish registered CQNs of 80 for cod, and 79 for coho salmon, while fresh fish of the same species came in significantly lower with an average score of 15 for cod and 20 for coho salmon.
With both facets of this study showing promising results, the question that remains is whether eaters will take the bait, at best exploring direct purchasing options or, at least, requesting more information from their fish monger about the provenance and handling of the day’s catch.
The results of our study suggests they will, but only if they are provided with transparency and information about the fish when it was frozen — immediately after it was caught? Or after it spent a week at the seafood counter?
What we know for sure is that conscientious consumer dollars are critical to helping sustainable, community fishermen stay afloat. And, suffice it to say, when fishermen who care about the relationship between climate, oceans, coastal environments, communities and economies win, we all win.
In a challenging global, industrial marketplace community fishermen struggle to compete. To better their odds, some are turning to flash-freezing to preserve their catch. However, consumers continue to assume that fresh fish is higher quality and, in some cases, more local despite the fact that it may have spent days degrading at the seafood counter.