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Top Species: Farmed Salmon

From farm to plate, every fish tells a story

By Joanne Friedrick
May 05, 2013

While wild salmon may evoke images of the great outdoors, its farmed cousin has become equally adept at telling its own tale. Increasingly, farmed salmon is building a following through branding or by relying on its country of origin to create a positive marketing message.

Verlasso, which produces salmon in Patagonia, Chile, through a venture with AquaChile, spent 2012 focusing on building distribution, says Director Scott Nichols, and this year the company is working on its retailer relationships.

Verlasso recently placed its salmon in Central Market in Texas and it has also introduced smoked salmon under a joint venture with Acme Smoked Fish Corp. of Brooklyn, N.Y. 

The smoked product is sold under Acme’s Blue Hill Bay label and is just now coming onto the market.

Verlasso likes to tell the story of how its salmon is raised, and uses gill tags with QR codes — two per fillet — so both the retailer or restaurateur and the customer can connect with the fish. There is a short interview with the farm manager that can be accessed from the tag, says Nichols.

“All salmon is red and dead,” Nichols explains, “so we have to do the communication. People really do get that how your food is raised matters and who your farmer is also matters.”

Verlasso’s goal has been to reduce its reliance on feeder fish by changing the way it feeds its salmon, says Nichols. It uses a 1:1 ratio, replacing fish oil and fishmeal obtained from feeder fish with omega-3 rich yeast.

The company has worked with chefs to share this information and is now targeting retailers. Nichols says it’s important to expand the brand. “We can’t meet sustainability needs if we stay a niche product,” he says.

Skuna Bay, based in Vancouver, Canada, is another brand in a growth mode. David Mergle, director at Skuna Bay, says after starting in one market in November 2011, the brand is now distributed in 30 states to about 800 chefs.

While the salmon had been farmed for years, it wasn’t until recently that the Skuna Bay brand was created and the farming and marketing program tweaked, says Mergle.

“Our farmers didn’t have a direct pipeline to the customer,” he says. In developing the brand, they have also made improvements by reducing both the density and the fish in/fish out ratio. They also harvest in small batches to reduce the stress and fatigue on the fish, which tightened the processing window.

Fish that get the Skuna Bay label go through a 14-point selection process, he says, which includes checking factors such as scale loss, firmness and eye clarity. Distributors aren’t allowed to open the boxes, he says; only chefs in their kitchens.

“When we talked with our customers, traceability came up quite a bit,” says Mergle. “This gives chefs a connection on the back end.”

Mergle says about 95 percent of the salmon — Skuna Bay produces 30,000 pounds a week — goes to restaurants. It is positioned as a premium product, but Mergle says as commodity salmon prices have risen by $1.40 recently, “we’ve only taken an additional 25 cents, so our value is getting better and better.”

Plans are to expand in the Pacific Northwest by filling gaps there, and possibly additional expansion into Texas and the Southeast. Skuna Bay only ships by ground, says Mergle, so they are somewhat limited in distribution reach.

Know your fish 

While Verlasso and Skuna Bay have devised their own methods for tracing fish, Cory Dellinger, strategic contracting manager-seafood for Avendra, is working with about 35 to 40 regional seafood distributors to ensure that restaurants and retailers are getting what they are ordering. Avendra specializes in procurement, assisting companies with supply chain management and cost control.

Avendra is able to determine if fish is properly labeled through random DNA testing on samples of all species. Its quality assurance teams have tested both farmed and wild salmon without incident.

While DNA is the preferred method of quality control from Avendra’s point of view, Dellinger says whatever methods companies are taking to ensure authenticity of supply are welcome. 

“Consumers are looking for some type of direction,” he says. “They are asking more questions about seafood and thus companies are implementing more measures.”

Avendra also works with companies doing price audits, checking suppliers’ invoices and raw costs against the price lists that are being sent out to distributors. 

Farmed salmon is a big mover with his customers, Dellinger says, so he instructs customers to be aware of what they are buying. 

Avendra doesn’t set specifications, but rather works with distributors to provide options to its diverse customer base. That includes, says Dellinger, setting guidelines around price, quality and service. 

“We require that our distributors have a plan around traceability and sustainability,” he says, but Avendra doesn’t support a particular NGO. What’s important, Dellinger says, is that distributors offer different sizes, prices and country of origin of farmed salmon.

A global marketplace 

When it comes to supply, Canada, Chile, the Faroe Islands, Scotland and Norway continue to be key producers of farmed salmon. In 2012, Canada exported more than 180 million pounds of whole farmed salmon to the United States, along with another nearly 10 million pounds of fillets. Chile’s contribution exceeded 148 million pounds, while the Faroe Islands exported about 25 million pounds of whole farmed salmon and fillets. And the United States imported almost 12 million pounds of fillets and whole farmed salmon from Norway. 

The addition of farms and the optimization of production at existing sites is driving growth in the Northeast, says Pam Parker, executive director of the Atlantic Canada Fish Farmers Association (ACFFA), which encompasses salmon farms in Newfoundland, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

About 60 percent of production is sold in the Northeast United States, she says, with the remainder staying in Canada. 

“In Atlantic Canada, we are seeing that both Newfoundland and Nova Scotia have strategies to grow” by adding farms or increasing production through improved feeding methods, she says. 

Even though Atlantic Canada’s salmon farming industry has 30 years under its belt, it’s still a relatively new industry, she points out, and residents in the area are supporting its growth. And Nova Scotia could see 300 new jobs from a new hatchery and processing plant.

Demand has risen recently, says Parker, which is helping to strengthen pricing, as has the addition of value-added product. “Right now, our companies are meeting demand, but as production increases, they’ll explore expansion of their market,” she says.

The industry has experienced sea lice in the warmer temperature waters around New Brunswick, she says, and is dealing with it by testing treatments, including the use of hydrogen peroxide, and researching biological controls.

Four new farms have been approved for New Brunswick in the past year and there are more applications in the works for Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, she says. The industry is supported by the provincial governments, which see value in the industry. 

“They are seeing a quality product with a low environmental footprint,” says Parker. “Salmon can be raised in harmony with other species, such as lobster, in our jurisdiction. Salmon farming has so much potential for our rural coastal communities.” 

Growing global demand for salmon, especially in Eastern Europe and Asia, has Norway looking for opportunities as well, says Karin Olsen, U.S. director of the Norwegian Seafood Council (NSC). 

Although Norway isn’t expecting a big increase in supply, it is working hard to serve its biggest markets, she says, which are France and Russia. Last year, Norway exported about 132,000 metric tons to Russia, she says, which corresponds with heightened demand as Russia adds more supermarkets.

Growth in the French market is up 30 percent, she says. Meanwhile, the U.S. market represents about 10 percent of Norway’s overall salmon exports, says Olsen. 

To build its U.S. business, Olsen says the NSC has focused on supermarket dieticians. 

“They are good spokespeople for a healthy diet and we need to get seafood on their agenda,” she says, adding that salmon is an especially good source of omega-3 fatty acids. Handing out recipes and providing background on Norwegian salmon is also helpful to advancing its visibility, she says.

Issues such as sustainability, traceability and the health of the fish have been addressed or are being addressed through various efforts, says Olsen. 

“We already have a good system on traceability and sustainability. The control of sea lice and escapes are the biggest issues that are currently being addressed,” she says, with goals for both in sight. Like the Altantic Canada farmers, Norwegian suppliers are testing different techniques for cleaning fish and treating sea lice, she says. A system is being constructed to track escaped salmon, possibly through DNA, back to their farms.

Contributing Editor Joanne Friedrick lives in Portland, Maine 

Find other SeaFood Business articles covering farmed salmon here.

May 2013 - SeaFood Business  

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