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Special Feature: Processing equipment

Seafood processors seek increased automation, precision

Precision weighing equipment is in demand. - Photo courtesy of Marel
By James Wright
July 01, 2013

Buoyed by strong global demand for seafood, processing equipment manufacturers still like their prospects despite economic uncertainty in target markets. 

As retail and foodservice seafood buyers pursue portions, fillets and other value-added products requiring less prep time in the kitchen or at the counter, their services and products are crucial.

Farmed salmon is a good example. With global production on the upswing and demand for fresh and frozen fillets increasing, sales for salmon-processing equipment are also robust, particularly where aquaculture output is at its highest — not necessarily where the labor is most affordable. 

“Norway is the strongest market, then Chile,” says Thorir Einarsson, CEO of Baader North America in Auburn, Wash., which focuses on the farmed salmon industry, partly because the wild salmon season is short by comparison. Norway is the world’s leader in farmed salmon production, exporting NOK 29.6 billion ($5.1 billion; €3.9 billion) of salmon in 2012, according to the Norwegian Seafood Council. 

For suppliers there, high-tech automated equipment is gradually replacing the need to ship product across the globe for secondary processing. More and more of the salmon that Norwegian producers once sent to China is staying in Norway, Einarsson says. 

He points to products like the Baader 581 high-speed filleting machine as an example of processing equipment dictating industry trends — creating enough capacity to compete with processing powerhouses in Southeast Asia. 

“It is a game-changer,” says Einarsson of the 581 and other segments of Baader’s state-of-the-art salmon processing line. “It moves the entire process close to the first processing,” he says, which is right on shore where the fish are slaughtered. Producers are doing more filleting before rigor mortis sets in, he adds, “But the challenge is you have to be minimal with labor costs. With our new line, the need for more employees goes down.” 

Older Baader salmon-processing lines that produced 10 fish per minute required 10 to 15 employees to run the machines, Einarsson says. The company’s newest equipment needs only four people to crank out 18 fish per minute. 

“If you count the whole [line], the payback is much higher. More fish, with one-fifth the manpower,” he says. 

In the United States, a net importer of processed fishery products, seafood production is relatively stable, and many of the leading suppliers and manufacturers are working with fairly new filleting and slicing equipment, says Dina Phinney, marketing manager for Marel USA in Seattle. 

But the U.S. market is not devoid of opportunity for equipment sales, Phinney says. In fact, she’s bullish on the prospects for Marel’s Flowscale precision-weighing machine, which was approved for sale in the United States last December. “It’s our newest baby,” she says. 

The Flowscale, which can handle a continuous stream of up to 100 tons of product per hour across its built-in conveyor belt, debuted at the International Boston Seafood Show in March. 

“We had done a lot of R&D on this one,” says Phinney. “We waited two years, because it needed to be precise. There is more demand for [precision weighing] in the United States than filleting [equipment]. We see this as the best-selling equipment in the coming year.” 

Precision has been lacking in the seafood industry. Stories about mislabeled seafood, either by species name or by product weight, have found their way into the news far more than the industry is comfortable with. 

And the fraud complaints are not only directed at restaurants or supermarkets where the products are sold to consumers: In May, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Fisheries Service fined Seattle-based American Seafoods $2.7 million for allegedly tampering with scales on three of its factory trawlers over a course of several years, which has the federal agency worrying about the potential impact on fisheries. 

In a statement, the company said it “takes seriously its commitment to sustainable fishing practices and has cooperated fully with NOAA in investigating these matters.” 

South America and Asia are two markets in which investment in seafood processing equipment is growing. A May report from Global Industry Analysts of San Jose, Calif., said developing markets like Asia-Pacific, Latin America and Eastern Europe are expected to “lend traction and boost market prospects” for food-processing machinery. 

The global market for processing equipment is forecast to reach $45 billion by the year 2018, driven by higher demand for processed food and food-chain expansion, both foodservice and retail. 

“This serves as an indicator of the fact that, excluding Europe, business confidence remains optimistic in developing countries,” says the report, adding that the United States and Canada still present an “encouraging picture.” 

Einarsson says Baader hoped to have its newest whitefish processing equipment line — a product on par with its salmon line — ready for the European Seafood Exposition in April, but plans to launch that product were delayed until year’s end. 

“We wanted to further test the technology,” says Einarsson. “Automation is driving sales of equipment and we’re finding out that our biggest competition is our old equipment.” 

Email Senior Editor James Wright at jwright@divcom.com

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