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While at the Boston Seafood show last March I had a number of discussions with shellfish wholesalers on cultured products and what could be done with the different species to add value before harvest. We also discussed primary and secondary processing and what it did to change the sales and consumption habits of consumers, both food service and retail. It was evident from the discussions that many were not aware of what was possible or available; interestingly, I am not so sure that a lot of growers in the shellfish industry are aware of what can be done either.

Processing: when you think of this word with respect to the seafood sector, thoughts of stainless steel equipment with rubber belts, billowing steam and making lots of noise, come to mind. Yet when you look closer at what is involved, "processing" has everything to do with having caused influences of what you are working with right through to the consumer. Or, as we say in our consultation group, the process is moving the product from the larval stage through to the dinner plate.

So let's discuss the many factors involved, some obvious and others not so obvious, in the area of processing.

Of the many areas that I am responsible for in our company, product development and technology transfer are usually the most exciting. With the amount of travelling I do to shellfish farms and conferences throughout the world I have observed a variety of interesting methods that affect the quality, value and the convenience of shellfish both pre and post harvest.

Shellfish consumers, once they find out that there is a new definition of the way shellfish is offered due to advancement in technology of production and processing, are pushing consumption demand up around the globe. One of the challenges the industry has - whether it is wild harvest or cultured - is to understand the need to focus on these methods of producing the highest quality product obtainable so as to suit the customer and not just their own abilities or tastes.

The message that needs to be recognized is that shellfish is not a mainstream market consumption item; it is not something that, globally, people consume on a regular basis. Yet when you observe the shellfish industry, the focus is producing for a commodity market as cheaply as you can, instead of understanding the reality that it is a market niche industry and that people are willing to pay more for a higher quality, safe product.

The advances in shellfish aquaculture in the last ten years have enabled a number of growers to produce a quality product, and the resultant demand and increasing farm gate price are evident in the positive financial aspects of their business. Unfortunately, there are still a great number who do not accept the preceding and as a result still focus on commodity markets. Their actions in many cases are causing unbalanced pressure on farm gate or dock side costing and encourage pricing competitions needlessly; it is interesting, however, that at the consumer level, because of the distribution chain, pricing fluctuations are not really as evident.

While there are an increasing number of producers who are being effective in understanding how to address this, the majority are still a good distance behind. The evidence is very real, though, because I have witnessed pricing differences of 300% to 400% in the same country with the same species caused by demand differences of customers' perception of quality. For those who believe that producing a lower quality product for this market niche sector is the only way to do business, they may want to take a closer look at why this price differential is in fact happening and why they are not taking advantage of it.

The power of branding your product if you want to make more money and create a larger market share is extremely important; you do, however, need something that is different than what is being offered to match the focus of your marketing efforts. In the aquaculture sector, due to the location of the farms, you can have differences in shelf life, taste due to salinity and nutrient up take differences, colour, and yield, as well as decreased grow out times to market. When you add to this advanced shellfish husbandry methods, you amplify the preceding as well as a number of other very positive consumer features.

With oysters we have the ability to change shell shape, colour, shell thickness and brittleness, yield, taste and shelf life all with one husbandry method. Using, for example, the Adjustable Longline System, a system so efficient in the sub-tidal zone that it has nature doing a very high percentage of the labour and causing a great increase in quality. There are a number of different advanced methods for oysters which allow for selection of equipment for different environments and species that can be selected for the desired outcome of the grow out site.

Methods of growing clams in net bags or boxes, allowing for better access to food and to reduce predation challenges, has allowed for a much reduced labour involvement as well as the production of a plumper, sweeter clam. The method also allows for filtering the sand out of the animal within the water column before harvest, again adding to quality.

Growing mussels on submerged longlines that hold the animal at a certain depth, which has a temperature that fluctuates only a few degrees year round, prevents the animal from a normal spawn, allowing only a trickle spawn. This allows year round harvest to market access vs. the six to eight week period in the summer that other mussels are not available because meat yields are so low due to spawning. Triploidy technology that does not allow the animal to spawn - thus guaranteeing the highest meat yields and best flavour - is becoming more popular as advancements are made in this area.

I have seen oysters from a general region get a reputation of a metallic or tinny taste over the years. This was primarily caused by bottom growing only. Within the same region, growers went to mid-water gear, and because the animals are not on the bottom the metallic taste is not evident. You are a product of where you eat and live. There are a number of methods for other species and regions, however I think you get the idea that processing of the animal for quality can start well before harvest.

Post harvesting methods for increasing quality and value for the consumer has once again seen only a handful of companies move forward. The results of their efforts are seen in increased quality and convenience to the consumer.

Depuration of animals for certain time periods to clarify toxins and/or sand produces a safer, easier to consume product. In some areas it is law that shellfish have this as part of their processing.

Tempering of clams by dropping the water temperature in post harvest holding areas for a few days can as much as double the product shelf life.

Pasteurization processes such as those patented by Ameripure in Louisiana, USA allows for a dramatic reduction in potential vibrio bacteria while at the same time capturing the very fresh flavour.

Hydrostatic pressure will have similar results as pasteurization, however will shuck the shell at the same time. In some markets this would add further value.

Shellfish partially cooked and presented in a prepared sauce or their own juices, and then blast frozen in a vac pak package has now joined the ready-made sector: Mussels Marinara, Mussels in a White Wine Sauce, Clams Casino, to name just a few.

Individual quick-frozen (IQF) oysters, as well as mussels and clams either whole or Top Value Off (TVO), can be are glazed during the process to further the aspect of quality.

Oysters and scallops on the half shell with sauces and/or as a special presentation are becoming more popular in the food service trade in certain markets.

It is very interesting to note that while the past focus of customers for the shellfish industry has been the food service sector, the retail sector is growing rapidly. The convenience of the pre and post harvest processing to provide higher quality, easy-to-prepare and ready-to-eat meals fits the lifestyles of today's busy society. Also of interest is that chefs are getting to like the idea of easier to prepare and deliver seafood dishes that have the flavour locked by blast freezing almost immediately after coming from the ocean.

The final area of the processing line that is being used by the more aggressive growers is packaging that suits the buying habits of today's consumers. While there is still a lot of bulk product available, packages appropriate to the serving size, with instructions and branding, are becoming popular at the point of sale, especially in today's hypermarket retail environment. Some growers have realized the simple fact that other food producers learned a long time ago - packaging adds value and sells product.

So there you have it, a quick over view of some of the many options in processing that will suit you and meet the needs of your customer.

Contact Don Bishop at:
Fukui North America

110-B Bonnechere St.W.
Eganville, Ontario K0J 1T0
Tel: 613-625-1704
Fax: 613-625-2688
Email: kate@fukuina.com

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