BOSTON -- For fish, the future of "fresh" is likely to be frozen, according to Ken Coons, executive director of the New England Fisheries Development Association here.
The total value of the seafood industry in the United States is estimated at more than $34 billion, Coons said in an interview with SN. What's more, it is expanding at unprecedented rates into a global business -- and that will help frozen products become ever more important, especially for retailers.
"It's time to free frozen seafood from our past mistakes and promote it for what it is -- often the best way to bring the world's seafood to the consumer," said Coons.
Coons is a longtime observer of Boston's and the nation's seafood industries. He spent the past 16 years with the NEFDA, and another 12 years in the seafood industry before that as a marketing executive for seafood-sourcing firms.
Coons said he has been seeing rapid change in an ancient industry. The seafood available from merchants had for centuries consisted mainly of what came in on local boats, whether they fished inshore waters just off the coast, or traveled to faraway fishing grounds.
Given this tradition, frozen has long been considered and treated as inferior, partly because some sellers would freeze fish at the end of its shelf life, then foist it upon unsuspecting consumers. Many of those consumers turned away from retail fish forever and frozen fish came to mean lousy fish. For many people, it still does, but Coons said that is finally changing.
"For too long 'frozen' has been considered the opposite of 'fresh.' In reality, both are products that are being refrigerated to retard spoilage, only at different temperatures," said Coons. "The packaging requirements are usually greater for frozen storage, and shelf life greatly depends upon both packaging and temperature control."
He said retailers need to understand and market some new definitions and attitudes toward fresh and frozen seafood, because globalization of the seafood industry has changed everything.
Most of the seafood eaten in the United States is now imported and often from fish farms overseas, and arrives frozen, fresh or sometimes alive. Even local wild-caught fish is often now frozen at sea.
"Fresh is no longer limited to native fish and shellfish species caught by the local fishing fleet. Just as other perishables like produce and flowers are routinely flying half way around the world to supermarkets, so too is fresh seafood," said Coons.
"Innovations in packaging and transportation of seafood are redefining fresh," Coons said, explaining that just because a seafood item has never been frozen doesn't mean it's fresh.
"Fish destined for the fresh market may come from inshore 'day boats' that come home every evening, but is more likely to come from 'trip boats' out for at least a week. Clearly then, some of the fish is a week old before it reaches the pier and half its shelf life is already gone.
"By comparison, a line-caught codfish that has been headed and gutted and frozen at sea within hours of catch may be 'fresher' than a fish that has never been frozen."
And how many seafood retailers know there's such a thing as too fresh? "It may be surprising to discover that some species of fish can be too fresh and need a day or two out of the water to 'set up' and develop full flavor," he said.
"For species like cod, there is a window of about 14 days when the fish is considered to be top quality."
The NEFDA literally wrote the book on techniques for onboard handling of fish seafood to attain maximum shelf life and quality. The NEFDA also sponsored a four-year Quality Project in the 1980s to teach harvesters how to achieve these techniques.
"The United States is now importing seafood from 135 countries. Some are shipping in refrigerated or cured products but the majority of last year's $6.6 billion in seafood imports arrived in frozen form," Coons said.
So how is it that so many tiger shrimp sit unfrozen in retail cases around the country, advertised as fresh? The answer may be that retailers are convinced that consumers still see a stigma attached to frozen.
"The leading dollar value item in most retail seafood cases is shrimp, which freezes well and would be a nightmare to source and handle in fresh form," said Coons. Thus, the system sends frozen products through the pipeline only to be thawed at the last step before reaching the consumer.
"The creative lexicon of the fish trade has been enriched in recent years with the term 'refreshed' fish.
This means fish that was frozen and now is being offered in competition with 'fresh.' Some of the 'refreshed' fish is of admirable quality and compares well with 'fresh' while some is clearly inferior. As with anything else, the price reflects these quality differentials along with the demand/supply situation in any given week.
"There are advantages to frozen seafood. It can be frozen quickly at the source. It can be stored and distributed in an orderly fashion to meet market demands. Different species freeze and hold better than others. The method of catch and the condition of the fish at time of catch all affect quality, as does the manner in which the fish is defrosted, which is almost more important than how it was frozen."
"There is, of course, ample room in the U.S. retail market for fresh, frozen and 'refreshed' fish,' " said Coons. But, so many species, so many sources, so many forms -- what's a retailer to do to keep up?
"Your best source of product knowledge is an experienced supplier who understands your market needs," he advised.