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Top Species: Cod

Reliable whitefish sends message of consistency, value

Cod’s mild flavor is appealing to consumers and is a great value. - Photo courtesy of Alaska Seafood
By Joanne Friedrick
January 05, 2012

As a purchaser of about 2 million pounds annually, Culver’s knows cod. The Prairie du Sac, Wis., QSR chain has featured battered and fried cod as a sandwich or a dinner since 1984, when the company transitioned from a supper club format to a frozen custard and burger stand, says Jim Doak, executive chef and director of menu development.

The company aimed to give customers the same Friday night fish fry experience they were used to, he says. In the first 10 years or so of the company, it purchased only Norwegian cod. But as the franchise-based restaurant group has grown — it now operates 443 restaurants in 19 states — it has broadened its purchasing to North Atlantic cod from three suppliers, says Doak. “But we still purchase only premium loin cuts” and do the battering and frying in house.

Cod makes a quality statement to diners, says Doak, and has the added benefit of being plentiful and versatile. Although Culver’s has primarily focused on fried cod for its sandwich and dinner, Doak says new recipes are in the works. Two new sandwiches are the cod reuben and Asian crispy cod. “And we’re also looking at other options, including non-fried ones,” he says.

The popularity of the Friday night fish fry has made the cod dinner the No. 1 choice in Culver’s dinner category, which also includes fried chicken and pot roast, says Doak. The traditional fish sandwich ranks at No. 8 among more than 40 options.

Doak says even with fluctuations in the biomass that impact price and availability, cod has remained a choice Culver’s relies on. And the ongoing focus on sustainability of the species is important to the chain as well, he says.

It’s good to be king

Cod is also the top-of-mind species at Fishery Products International, the foodservice division of High Liner Foods based in Danvers, Mass. “Sixty years ago we started as a sales and marketing group to sell cod from Newfoundland,” says Jim LaBelle, VP-marketing at FPI, “and it’s still a popular, nationally demanded whitefish.”

While there are many regional species that appeal to certain diners, such as catfish in the South or halibut in the Northwest, LaBelle says cod, as an Atlantic and Pacific species, has a wider market. “So when we develop new products, we first think of cod.”

The company procures about 25 million pounds a year, he says, with about two-thirds coming from the Barents and Baltic seas in the North Atlantic and the remaining third from Alaska.

The past couple of years have been great for cod, which has benefited from sustainability efforts established in the commercial fishing industry, says LaBelle. And pricing has firmed a little because demand is up worldwide, he adds.

Cod does have its competitors, says LaBelle, who notes the popularity of pollock and tilapia has challenged the species. “But it’s still a great value,” he says, and appeals to many foodservice channels because of its mild flavor and big flake.

Those characteristics are also what make cod appealing at retail, says Mark Jones, retail marketing representative for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. “Alaska produces a tremendous amount of Pacific cod and we try to include it as part of our marketing plans at retail,” he explains.

The mild flavor is appealing to consumers and the fish is an excellent value, says Jones. ASMI offers various promotional materials for stores, ranging from case dividers and stickers to posters and signs. ASMI also supports retailers in consumer events, providing recipe cards since recipes are the No. 1 requested item, he says.

“Cod is a fish restaurants like to use because people know what they are going to get,” he says. Additionally, it is adaptable and accepts coatings or broiling equally well. “We use it in pretty much every value-added platform,” says LaBelle, such as the Rustic Italian Cod in the company’s FireRoasters line and the Caribbean Crusted Cod in FPI’s UpperCrust line.

Lent has been a traditional focal point for seafood in general and cod specifically, says LaBelle, but year-round demand is growing because the fish and the different preparations “fit the bill for a lot of menu options.”


Cod: A world view 

The total allowable catch (TAC) for the Barents Sea set by Norway and Russia in 2012 is 751,000 tons, which is an increase of 8 percent.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service, in 2010 the United States imported 2.5 million pounds of fresh cod fillets and another nearly 1.9 million pounds of frozen fillets from Canada. Russia supplied more than 3 million pounds of non-specified previously frozen fillets along with 1.6 million pounds of frozen cod fillets. The United States imported more than 5.3 million pounds of frozen fillets from Iceland, while Norway’s contribution was mostly in the form of fillet blocks. America imported nearly 38 million pounds of non-specified previously frozen cod fillets from China and another 2.4 million from Thailand.

Carlos Troulo, sales director and partner for Moichido SL, a producer of value-added Atlantic cod loins and portions from Russia and Iceland, says demand has slumped among Europe’s traditional markets such as Spain, Portugal, France, Italy and the United Kingdom.

This economic trend, he says, has put “downward pressure on Atlantic cod prices,” and has driven importers in the United States, Europe and elsewhere to seek cheaper substitutes, such as haddock, hake, hoki and saithe.

Others, he says, “opt for sourcing Atlantic and even Pacific cod processed in China as a remedy to try pushing up sales.”

On the bright side, he says, the United States’ demand for “true, premium quality single-frozen Atlantic cod portions and loins is on the rise.” And as the North American consumer learns to eat more fish, there is increased demand and questions about traceability and sustainability, he says.

Two Pacific cod stocks in the Gulf of Alaska and in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands received Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification in early 2010 and Norwegian North East Arctic cod was certified in November. Although cod stocks in the Barents Sea were considered healthy and well-managed, there was still an issue of managing the impact of the fisheries on bycatch of coastal cod that needed to be dealt with. A rebuilding plan for coastal cod was adopted as part of the MSC certification process.

The rise in quotas for the north Atlantic and Barents Sea, says Truolo, is expected to push prices for commodity Atlantic cod to less than $3,000 a metric ton from its current level of $3,800 a metric ton. He says traditional Atlantic cod producers, who in the past relied on Spain and Portugal as buyers, “now look west for value-added markets and east for big volume consumers of raw materials.”

Contributing Editor Joanne Friedrick lives in Portland, Maine

Find other SeaFood Business articles with cod here.

January 2012 - SeaFood Business

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