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One Man's Opinion: Has Norway lost its way?

Property of SeaFood Business magazine
By Peter Redmayne
January 01, 2008

My first trip to Norway was my firs t press junket back in 1982. I had just quit fishing in Alaska to pursue a career as the editor of a seafood magazine. Free trip to Norway? Count me in. So I headed to Chicago, where I met up with a group of women who wrote for titles like Good Housekeeping and Ladies Home Journal . It was a great introduction to the perks of being a writer; first class all the way from the time we boarded our SAS flight to Copenhagen.

At the time, Norway's salmon production was less than 10,000 metric tons (compared to more than 650,000 metric tons today), but it was clear this industry had a lot of potential. It was all about the quality, the Norwegians said time after time.

Having fished in Alaska, I knew the reality of salmon processing there. In those days, fishermen threw fish around their boat, stepped on them and rarely used ice. Then the fish had to be pumped aboard a tender, and pumped again up to a processing plant. It was OK if it was going into a can, which masks a lot of handling sins.

Norway's salmon farmers, on the other hand, delivered their fish live to the processing plant, where it was promptly bled and gingerly iced and put in Styrofoam boxes, bound for buyers in Europe and North America, who were clamoring for fresh, high-quality salmon and willing to pay a huge premium for it.

Over the years, Norway's salmon industry has spent tens of millions of dollars on marketing the quality of its salmon. And with good results. Norwegian salmon became synonymous with the best farmed salmon. Until now.

This fall, press reports in the Norwegian trade media told of EU buyers who were increasingly fed up with the disappointing quality of the salmon from Norway.

"The quality of the Norwegian salmon has deteriorated," one Danish importer told Fiskaren, a Norwegian newspaper. "There are plenty of others in the EU value-added processing industry that say the same."

And the problem is not just endemic to Norway. The salmon-farming industry has consolidated over the past few years and a 
handful of publicly traded, cost-conscious companies with farms in Norway, Chile, Canada and Europe dominate production. One company alone, Marine Harvest, will produce more than 400,000 metric tons of salmon this year.

As fishmeal prices have soared, it seems that salmon farmers have been substituting cheaper ingredients like vegetable oils, which can result in softer meat. In a further effort to cut costs, some farmers are also cutting back on their use of synthetic carotenoids like astaxanthin that give farmed fish its desirable orange-red color.

If Norway's farmed-salmon industry is smart, it will get back to basics and stick with producing the highest-quality product it can and enforce grading standards. It should avoid what so many other seafood producers end up doing, which is cheapen their product by lowering their quality. Consumers are already getting enough negative messages about farmed salmon from well-funded environmental groups. Why give them one more?


Contributing Editor Peter Redmayne lives in Seattle


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