Cheap Seafood's High Cost

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If cats can smell in their dreams, the seafood processing facility I visited Monday must be their idea of a smorgasbord in heaven. One hundred miles inland, this place smells like the Pacific. I've spent countless hours talking to seafood distributors, but what really goes on at this critical link in the seafood supply chain? I wanted a firsthand peek inside their black box. The experience was chilling, and not because I forgot to wear gloves.

The company I visited processes 300,000 to 400,000 pounds of seafood each week, selling to supermarkets and restaurant chefs (including ours). More than half of their sales volume is salmon, of which 75 to 80 percent is farmed. (We only buy the wild stuff though.)

Dozens of pallets of salmon trucked 1,500 miles from ocean pens in British Columbia. They are stored in a large room consistently chilled to 36 degrees F. The fish are packed in uniform-sized disposable boxes weighing 100 pounds each; one-quarter of the weight is ice. Everything in the room is white—the lab coats we're wearing, Styrofoam boxes, fluorescent ceiling bulbs. It looks like a morgue for the sea.

What does it say about us that more people process seafood than actively catch it?

Conveyor belts and cutting stations occupy a larger, slightly warmer room. Most seafood distributors "process" products instead of simply delivering whole fish. Here I saw workers efficiently decapitating thousands of fish, removing spines, and chopping off tails. The heads and bellies are dropped in separate 250-gallon tanks to be sold for other purposes. The spines and tails are discarded. Even with these volumes, there aren't enough of these bits for the company to bother selling them—as pet food, fertilizer, or anything else. One wonders whether this step ought to occur near the salmon farm, where there could be enough byproducts to sell them, or whether a smaller company near the distributor could develop this as a business opportunity. Locavorism for pet food, anyone?

Two-pound salmon sides slide through a conveyor belt, passing through several stations. At one, twenty needles inject Cajun-spiced marinade into the fish flesh before a worker channels the piece with a gloved hand toward another station to be filleted. Although the work is repetitive, it is not inhumanely fast-paced.

At another station, sides destined for supermarkets are routed through a deboning station. The machine extracts most of the pin bones—those little white bones that consumers find pesky—unwelcome evidence, perhaps, that they are eating, well, a fish. The distributor is able to invest in this expensive machine precisely because it processes so much of the same uniformed-sized species.

Some fillets are sliced just enough so that two halves can encircle a cylinder of stuffing and be sold as "ready to cook" individual portions. Four ounces of salmon (best cooked for no more than six minutes) plus four ounces of stuffing (requiring 25 minutes to cook). It's an odd pairing. If prepared as recommended, the fish is guaranteed to be overcooked. The yellowish mystery stuffing mix is extruded as logs through a giant tube. My hosts tell me this made-to-order combination is produced to their supermarket buyer's exact specifications year-in and year-out, and is their best-selling product.

Outside, in 93-degree heat, my mind turns to several paradoxes.

What does it say about us that more people process seafood than actively catch it?

Our current cultural predisposition to eat beneficial omega-3 fatty acids (even if we don't know how much we need or how much we are already consuming) has led to high demand for salmon—any salmon, even that which is farmed in ecologically destructive ways. Even if seafood distributors want to sell less farmed salmon, they are caught in a business cycle driven by consumer demand for a "healthy," inexpensive product. This cycle can be broken only with leadership from some part of the supply chain, but it is difficult to imagine leadership starting with the distributors in the middle. In addition, waste is everywhere—in the unwanted parts, during processing, over-ordering by retailers, and consumers' purchasing behavior. Large-scale delivery systems are surely part of the problem because they create an artificially large supply of inexpensive, low-quality food.

Lastly, the cost to our culinary heritage is substantial. The seafood processing industry isn't creating variety, and it controls most of the distribution channels. We are throwing away our chance to delight in other flavors and support ecosystem diversity at the same time. Shame on the nutritionistas for misleading us to accept such stale dishes and for creating a dependence on industrial-scale salmon farming. A comparable portion of lake trout with a small dollop of walnut pesto provides more omega-3s than farmed Atlantic salmon, not to mention far better flavor. We owe it to ourselves to demand more seafood variety from retailers—and I'm not referring to other stuffing mixes.

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Helene York is the director of strategic initiatives for Bon-Appetit Management, an onsite restaurant company based in Palo Alto, California.

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