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Special Feature: The travels of 1.5 billion pounds of frozen fish

Getting this quantity of seafood to market takes more than ice

About 62 percent of the seafood the United States imports is frozen.  - Photo by Laura Lee Dobson/courtesy of Slade Gorton
By Melissa Wood
February 01, 2014

Remember when frozen food meant a sliver of brown meat called Salisbury steak served on a compartmentalized tray with squares of corn, mashed potatoes and a brownie that always crumbled when you tried to take it out of its plastic pocket?

These TV dinners still exist, but the world around them has changed — drastically. A time-lapse camera over the last 25 years in a typical supermarket would show a steady expansion of the frozen section, growing from a single aisle, or perhaps a single coffin cooler, to today’s multiple aisles with end-unit displays. 

Expectations have also changed with frozen foods becoming associated with healthy, natural and organic options. For seafood — already distinguished for the health benefits from consuming it — that’s meant an abundance of new, gourmet-style, health-focused product lines, such as shrimp burgers from Pacific Seafood Group and the Simply Bake line from Gorton’s introduced in 2013.

“All the retail grocery stores, every time they remodel they’re adding another aisle of freezer space,” notes Mark Lorion, VP of business development and marketing for U.S. Cold Storage in Voorhees, N.J. 

And frozen seafood isn’t just confined to the supermarket. Ninety-one percent of the seafood Americans eat is imported, and about 62 percent of it — nearly 1.5 billion pounds worth more than $10 billion in 2012 — arrived frozen, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

It’s a lot of frozen fish traveling great distances. Such volume wouldn’t be possible without a solid cold chain infrastructure. U.S. companies that handle frozen seafood are not only growing in capacity but also adding new technology, efficiencies and security measures to ensure that valuable product reaches its destination on time and in good condition. 

Most of the seafood comes in by cargo ships to the major U.S. ports — Miami, Los Angeles, Boston, New Jersey, Virginia — traveling through major hubs like Chicago and Houston. 

In the 33 years Lorion has been with U.S. Cold Storage, a frozen logistics company with warehouses and inventory management, transportation services and other supply-chain support, he has witnessed the growth of the frozen industry firsthand. An evolution has taken place on the logistics side as well with the development of efficient and high-tech warehouse and transportation management systems that track product at all times. 

For example, “If you sell product to Safeway and it’s in transit you can find instantly where it is. We can work with our customers in real-time mode to make sure everybody knows where their order is,” he says. “We’re actually boasting through our delivery programs that we have a 99.54 percent on-time delivery system to our customers. That’s what our tracking is showing us. We also currently operate at 99.97 percent on our warehouse inventory accuracy as well.” 

The industry has come a long way, he says. “It used to be that if product would get misplaced, there could be product rotation variances or short shipments. Follow-up time and research was required for people to figure it out, and losses could be expensive. Today’s technology has helped accuracy and efficiencies greatly,” says Lorion.

The need for frozen logistics shouldn’t be slowing any time soon. On a global scale, the frozen food market is predicted to reach $293.75 billion by 2019, a year-over-year growth of nearly 4 percent from its $224.74 billion value in 2012, according to an October 2013 report from Transparency Market Research, “Frozen Food Market — Global Industry Analysis, Size, Share, Growth, Trends and Forecast, 2013-2019.” As the largest market of frozen foods, the United States accounted for an 80 percent share of the 2012 market.

The necessary increase in freezer room has helped fuel growth for Preferred Freezer Services in Chatham, N.J. The company, which operates cold-storage warehouses in the United States, China and Vietnam, was recognized as one of the United States’ fastest-growing private companies by Inc. magazine for its 39 percent growth from 2009 to 2012. 

Dan DiDonato, VP of sales, credits Preferred’s ability to “build a better mousetrap” for its growth. “All the markets that we’re in today, there were cold storages there already. They were just old, antiquated and much smaller.”

Size matters in cold storage. “We at any given time have an inventory of 800 million pounds of products within our 31 buildings in the United States. Seventy percent of that is seafood,” says DiDonato, who believes the company is the largest handler of frozen imported specialty seafood in the United States. That product ranges from imported frozen commodity to finished items packaged for retail shelves.

Preferred Freezer Services literally keeps an eye on that cargo. The company has a warehouse management system that tracks down to the package level as well as security cameras at all of its receiving and shipping doors. 

“So if there’s a discrepancy with a receipt and outbound statement we can go to the tape and we can show what was loaded or unloaded,” he says. “If we have a discrepancy and need proof we would burn a DVD we could send to the receiving party to show them or our customer it’s a claim with the carrier because we can show it shipping on that truck.”

DiDonato points out that such a system isn’t cheap — but neither is seafood. 

Email Assistant Editor Melissa Wood at mwood@divcom.com

February 2014 - SeaFood Business   

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