Like the crests and troughs of the turbulent oceans that sustain it, seafood continues to see its retail existence fluctuate along a slow but steady wave of growth, as value-added products and further-prepared items keep the market afloat among freshness and preparation concerns.
According to several industry insiders interviewed by SN, the keys to keeping wind in value-added seafood's sails -- and sales -- are consumer education and old-fashioned perseverance.
As one of the last departments to develop and sell fresh convenience products, such as premarinated fillets and precooked entrees, seafood is gradually pitching its value-added selection to an often wary consumer, who has many questions about preparation, safety and value.
"This department is definitely growing and developing, but at a very, very slow pace," said Larry Daerr, a buyer and merchandiser for Pittsburgh-based SuperValu. "I remember, in the beginning, people thought it would take off immediately, but we're seeing now that we just have to be patient."
Initially, the value-added seafood industry seemed to have unlimited potential for growth in its effort to provide both convenience and reliability for consumers, yet the public, even today, remains hesitant to trust both the product when it comes to freshness, and themselves when it comes to preparation, he said.
"I think if you keep a clean store, provide fresh product on the shelves, and maintain a good reputation, eventually [consumers will] come around," said Daerr, though he cautioned that future growth of the category depends more on the knowledge quotient than food safety, "because once they get it home, it's a whole other matter."
Another potential cause of slow sales is consumers who view value-added seafood as being "where product goes when it's not selling anymore," said Rich Cavanaugh, seafood director at Queen Anne Thriftway, Seattle. According to Cavanaugh, some shoppers think that seafood with added ingredients is simply a disguise for unfresh product, when that is not the case at all, he said. With a shelf life of anywhere from one to five days, most retail seafood is code dated and kept under monitored temperatures, several experts told SN, and in some cases, shelves are restocked with fresh product on a daily basis.
David Bennett, co-owner of Mollie Stone's Markets, Mill Valley, Calif., estimated there has been anywhere from 15% to 20% growth in the value-added seafood industry in recent years, and emphasizes product freshness and trust between retailer and customer as the two most important aspects of maintaining his operation.
"We purchase new seafood every day, have very few afternoon deliveries, and buy directly from fishermen in most cases, which cuts down on any lag time in delivery and stocking," said Bennett. "And as customers start to feel comfortable buying from us, I see them, more and more, picking up value-added fish as an alternative to beef and poultry."
The safety factor has become less of a wild card as processors and retailers take steps to maintain the quality chain. From holding tanks aboard the ocean-going trawlers to in-store ice tables, new technologies and best practices have been implemented along with additional government oversight. However, educating the consumer on preparation of take-home seafood products is one area where there is still a lot of resistance, though not necessarily on the part of retailers, according to those interviewed by SN. Cookbook author Patricia Kendall, otherwise known as The Fishlady, created her own Web site to help shoppers cook up the product once they get it home.
"More than anything else, people need to get over their fear of cooking fish and seafood products, and that's what I help them do, through my Web site and my books," she said, adding that more retailers should staff their departments with an in-store expert to help shoppers choose the right product and stand ready to give suggestions on its preparation. According to Daerr, SuperValu has a service area that does just that. He emphasized that even though strict sanitation programs at retail outlets like SuperValu-supplied stores provide a clean and pleasant shopping environment, the real issue with value-added seafood lies with overcoming consumer perceptions about freshness and the preparation of the product. He added that the most popular value-added item sold at SuperValu stores is a premarinated, boneless salmon filet.
"People are big into the boneless thing these days because it's one less thing they have to worry about when they're preparing it," said Daerr.
SuperValu also offers its trade customers a line of take-home seafood products extolling the health benefits associated with fish under the Heart-Healthy label, a selling point he hoped would attract not only the convenience seeker, but health-conscious shopper as well.
With preparation weighing heavy on the consumer mind, retailers are likewise searching to provide the most convenient method possible, a road which many insiders believe leads to the microwave. According to Evie Hanson, spokeswoman for the National Seafood Educators, Richmond Beach, Wash., "idiot proof" microwavable seafood products are definitely a wave of the future, along with take-home packs of skin-on fish for summertime grilling.
"Our industry has kind of fallen behind," acknowledged Hanson. "But if we can get supermarkets to work more with their commissaries and keep value-added seafood fresh and simple, I think there will always be a place for it on the shelves."
The idea that value-added seafood still trails behind meat and poultry in the protein department is understandable, given seafood's niche status, but one that stands the most to gain through aggressive promotion. According to Daerr, the average family "seems to be gradually returning to the whole concept of cooking again," and the seafood aisle needs to take advantage of that trend if it hopes to keep up with the other departments.
Evidence of the high hopes and expectations for the gaining ground in retail seafood could be found this past January 28 in the cold reaches of Anchorage, Alaska, during the seventh annual Symphony of Seafood competition, where various retailers, food-service and industry associates gathered to acknowledge the best of the new, groundbreaking retail seafood on the market. Nine industry experts tasted value-added seafood products currently available on the retail front, and selected the best of the lot in various categories.
"Seafood is lagging behind the other proteins, but hasn't yet realized its potential," said Laura Fleming, public relations director for Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, which sponsored the event. "This competition is intended to help spur that growth."
Some companies honored for their value-added retail products included Icicle Seafoods, Seattle, which won the People's Choice Award in the retail salmon category for its salmon shooters with cream cheese -- a skinless, boneless Alaska salmon layered with a smooth blanket of cream cheese and lightly dusted with breading.
StarFish, Inc., also of Seattle, was the runner up in the retail salmon category with its preassembled three-ounce Alaskan salmon skewers with garlic, basil, green and red peppers, onions and all-natural marinade, cooked from frozen.
In the retail whitefish category, first place went to So-Cal Seafoods, Whittier, Calif., for its ceviche -- an Alaskan pollock cubed with lemon juice, diced tomatoes and onions, and cilantro and spices served cold. In the same category, Kake Foods, Inc., Juneau, Alaska, was the runner up with its halibut ceviche -- a cold, smoked halibut with tomatoes, onion, garlic, cilantro, black pepper and lime juice.
All contest winners will be given significant exhibit space the International Boston Seafood Show being held March 7-9, and according to Fleming, winners often see a substantial boost in the sales of their products thanks to exposure at the Symphony.
Retailers and processors hope events such as the Symphony of Seafood can keep value-added products in the spotlight, as the entire supply chain works to develop products that satisfy both consumers' safety concerns and their reticence in preparation.
"The best way to get people to eat fish is to get them to initially try it, and once we do that, I think the ball will start rolling," said Cavanaugh.