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Seafood University: Safeguarding frozen seafood

Keep the temperature at zero degrees, and don't forget to rotate

For many shoppers, introduction to a particular seafood takes place in the frozen-food aisle, so make sure they always see quality in the freezer case. - Stephen Z. Heddericg
Joanne Friedrick
October 01, 2005

Frozen seafood, whether sold from a case in the seafood department or displayed in the traditional frozen-foods aisle, accounts for a growing share of retailers’ sales.

According to statistics from Information Resources Inc., frozen-seafood retail sales in 2004 (excluding Wal-Mart) reached nearly $1.6 billion, up 4 percent from 2003.

With sales on the rise, it’s critical to give these valuable products the care and attention they deserve.

While the focus within the seafood department is most often on moving the day’s supply of fresh or previously frozen fish and seafood, it’s also important to think about what message is being sent to consumers by the seafood in the frozen-foods section.

A shopper’s introduction to a particular species or preparation may be from a product purchased in the frozen-foods section.

The keys to success here are keeping product in an optimal frozen state and rotating it so customers always find quality items on the shelves.

Zero degrees Fahrenheit is the best temperature for maintaining the integrity of frozen foods. The American Frozen Food Institute’s Frozen Food Foundation in April launched an educational initiative aimed at creating awareness about the need to maintain proper product temperature to ensure optimum quality.

The theme of the Mclean, Va., group’s cold-chain-integrity campaign is “0: Nothing Tastes Better,” emphasizing the need to keep frozen foods at zero degrees F. And, in the case of seafood, it’s best to use the frozen product within three to six months. Prolonged freezing can cause taste and texture to begin to deteriorate.

For retailers, protecting frozen seafood begins from the moment products arrive at the back door and continues as it is stored in a stock-room freezer and then placed into the display freezer section.

“When we get a delivery, it goes straight from the truck to the freezer back stack [the freezers in the back room of the seafood department],” explains Jeff Copas, frozen foods buyer at Wheatsville Food Co-op in Austin, Texas. “It never gets out of a frozen environment.”

The co-op carries about a dozen SKUs of frozen packaged seafood, along with fresh items that are packaged in store and then placed in the freezer.

Among the items carried at the Wheatsville Food Co-op are tilapia fillets from Sea Port Products, tuna burgers from Omega Foods and wild salmon fillets, fish sticks, crab cakes and other products from United Natural Foods.

The store also packs and freezes crabmeat, surimi seafood and scallops for sale by the pound.

To keep frozen foods in the best shape possible, Copas says he limits inventory in the stock-room freezer to one case per item, “unless I’m having a sale.”

He also relies on frequent deliveries — three per week, on Monday, Wednesday and Friday — to keep his back room stocked and his frozen-case shelves filled.

“I go through enough every week that it’s not a burden to rotate product,” explains Copas.

Product rotation means items that were put into the case first need to be moved to the front as new product is added. Copas rotates product weekly and sells most of what is stocked that week, lessening reliance on manufacturers’ sell-by dates.

Companies use a variety of methods to indicate when items were packed or when they should be used. In some cases, codes are used for dates rather than an open-code dating system that relies on “sell by” or “best if used by” language.

AFFI, in a statement released in April, says while it recognizes that open-code dating may be beneficial to consumers and retailers, it “emphasizes the proper handling of frozen foods, rather than open code dating, as essential to product quality.”

This includes maintaining the 0-degree temperature throughout the supply chain and rotating on a “first-in, first-out” model. How a product is stored in its frozen state could either reduce or prolong its quality outside of the date on the package, AFFI contends.

On frozen product that is packed in the store, Copas says the seafood department adds its own dated labels, including the date the item was packed and a two-week to one-month expiration date.

Monty Rubley, meat and poultry manager at Zucca’s by Feldpausch in Battle Creek, Mich., is also responsible for the seafood department, where the frozen items are sold.

Like Copas, Rubley maintains a small selection of frozen seafood, which makes stocking and rotating easier.

“We keep very few items in there, so within a month’s time it’s pretty much rotated through,” he explains.

The eight to 10 items include portion-size steaks and fillets, including plain and marinated salmon, mahimahi and tuna, along with shrimp, tilapia and grouper. The fast-moving items, such as shrimp and tuna, may require keeping an extra case on hand, says Rubley.

As diligent as retailers may be about product storage and rotation, there are times when a freezer case malfunctions and temperatures drop below desired levels.

Fortunately, says Rubley, all the freezer cases at Zucca’s are equipped with alarms, “so if a [freezer] case goes down, we can pull the product and put it into the walk-in freezers.”

For older systems that aren’t able to rely on alarms to tell when there’s a problem, it’s important for seafood or frozen-food-department staff to make visual checks of the cases on a regular basis.

Misshapen packages may be an indication that product has thawed and refrozen, while moisture on the outside of the box may be a sign that temperatures have risen above 0 degrees and thawing has begun.

If seafood has thawed within the freezer case, the wise move is to discard it.

Fortunately, just a bit of attention in the form of regular product rotation and daily section maintenance can ensure that consumers have a great experience when buying frozen seafood at your store.

 October 2005 - SeaFood Business 

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