Tuesday, June 15, 2010

FAO Seafood Technology Offers Glimpse of Fish Processing Future

By Bob Tkacz

The commercial fishing industry, by definition, knows that fish are money, but a recent international conference on seafood technology demonstrated, in molecular detail, the potential profit from tons of “waste” products that gets ground up, hosed off and otherwise discarded in fisheries in Alaska and around the world.

How does $25 per kilogram for chitosan or $130 per kg for chitooligosaccharides sound for a fishery paycheck? Chitosan speeds up blood clotting and the US Marines are treating the battlefield dressings the use in Afghanistan with it. “COS” offers other health and food manufacturing benefits. Both organic compounds are among the many minerals, vitamins being refined from fish bones, skin, entrails and oils.

Put together by the University of Alaska and the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), the “Second International Congress on Seafood Technology,” May 10-12 in Anchorage, spent three days reviewing a range of scientific and business prospects as broad as the Gulf of Alaska horizon.

Shuichi Abe, chief developer in the food research lab of NOF, a leading Japanese refiner of food oils and petrochemicals, expressed the common theme of the congress. “Fishery waste is a treasure trove,” he said. Abe was one of more than 40 experts from a dozen countries discussing a rainbow of fish and seafood specialties.

X-ray equipped filleting lines that show processing workers the pin bones they must remove, robot box-packers and the health benefits and profits in salmon oil capsules were among the more mundane subjects addressed by presenters. “Sea-ghetti” noodles made from surimi, surimi made from giant squid and integrated monitoring systems linking bait types to fillet production were among the more exotic.

“I think what was really accomplished was bringing together technologists, consumer experts, researchers, government people, industry representatives to talk about how, really, to make the best use of the fisheries and aquaculture resources,” said Lahsen Ababouch, chief of the FAO’s fish utilization and marketing service, at the congress and the senior UN representative at the congress.

“For me it was kind of glimpses into the future of where things might be going,” said Gunnar Knapp, the University of Alaska seafood economist, who served as unofficial house skeptic for congress.

Nine Alaskan and Washington seafood companies were on the congress’s official attendees list but more sent representatives or contributed financial support. Several declined to identify what they saw as the potential “next big thing” for their companies, but others saw a sea of potential.

“I think there’s quite a few different things we’ll take a look at,” said Jeff Backlund of North Pacific Seafoods. He found the presentation by University of British Columbia Prof. Eunice Li-Chan on the use of fish protein hydrolysates as a coating to protect frozen seafood from freeze/thaw damage particularly interesting.

“Fish oil is going to be just another one of the products coming out, just like years and years ago we didn’t know what to do with the roe. Now it’s one of the more high value products coming out,” added Kenny Lum, president of the Seafood Products Association.

Lum said North Pacific seafood companies are already “pretty much using the whole fish,” but he added that costs and the conservative tendencies of CEO from companies that have survived a decade of economic tumult tend to stifle the search for new products.

“The seafood industry tends to, I believe, kind of get into a groove of, we’ve done this traditionally, we have established markets … It just really comes down to corporate philosophy and risk. There’s a fair amount of R&D money that is required. You could view them as impediments or you could view them as appropriate caution. You can always say there’s something we could have done because somebody else has done it,” Lum said.

Even if they don’t have their own research and development departments, Lum added, “Most of the seafood companies these days are realizing they can’t just be an Alaska wild harvest seafood company. They have to be high value-low cost to be competitive, whatever that product is. They’re not afraid to take a swing at something new once in a while.”

Sandro Lane, whose Alaska Protein Recovery manufactures salmon oil capsules for humans and a high protein liquid animal feed declared the congress “fascinating” and saw a possible commercialization of the salmon bones that comprise the remaining waste from the frames and other former waste from seafood processing plants that APR uses as its raw material.

“We produce a lot of bone that we’re still trying to figure ways to create value on. That’s really kind of the last piece on my puzzle, on the (refining) barge, is to find something that would justify the cost of processing bone,” Lane said following a presentation by Korean researcher Se-Kwon Kim on a process to convert enzymes extracted from fish bones and intestines into water soluble calcium, which sells for $50 to $100 per kg.

With a research staff of 26 graduate and post-grad students Kim is director of the Marine Bioprocess Research Center at Pukyong University in Busan. Its work has also developed medicinal products for HIV, dental diseases and arthritis and already uses calcium to manufacture UV-ray blockers, cosmetics and vitamin supplements.

Even with its intensive research programs and seafood-hungry population, Kim said, 47 percent of South Korea’s seafood harvest by weight, 1.2 million tons in 2007, was byproduct not used in the production of food for human consumption.

On a global scale, Peter Bechtel, from the US Dept. of Agriculture research center in Fairbanks, had the same message. “What I’m trying to tell you is out there in the world of 70 million metric tons of fish processed for human consumption I’m going to say over half of that is going to be byproducts,” Bechtel said in a separate presentation.

Brandon Basso, of Kodiak-based Alaska Pacific Seafoods, suggested Alaska processors “are, like, 30-years behind in protein manufacturing.” Among others he expected a larger focus during the congress on processing technology, but found a possible solution to Alaskan packers’ perpetual problem of attracting and keeping skilled processing line workers.

“I see, not just for my company, but for the whole entire Alaska seafood processing business, I see an opportunity to upgrade our automation,” Basso said.

Dr. Sveinn Margeirsson, from Matis ohf., an Icelandic food and biotech research and development institute, offered a glimpse of the possibilities of vertical integration and automation, which allowed 2009 Icelandic seafood exports to pass the $1.5 billion mark for the first time in history even though harvest quotas have been unchanged for years, Margeirsson said.

“In the last few years traceability and value chain management has been one of the main feats of development: trying to see the whole value chain at one time, trying to maximize the whole chain,” he explained.

He noted that, since computerized production controls were first employed in the mid-1980s, Icelandic processors, government regulators and research organizations like Matis can all get huge volumes of useful information. One cod longliner uses electronic data on the volume of harvest per kilo of bait to identify its best bait sources.

Plant managers know the species and volumes of the catch while vessels are still steaming toward the dock and companies that demonstrate a record of providing accurate data to fisheries managers are subject to lower observer requirements. “If you are supplying blocks of good data you have less cost of surveillance time of other companies,” Margeirsson said.
The Icelandic industry is integrating environmental information, such as impacts from bottom trawling, and product traceability, to respond to consumer and nongovernmental organization demands for proof that their products come from sustainable fisheries, he added.

Dr. Jim Stillinger, northwest regional manager for Multivac, Inc., the packing machinery giant, said the increasing demand from restaurant chains for ready-to-eat products is increasing automation by seafood processors.

In presentations that sometimes bordered on infomercials for their products, presenters from private companies also emphasized that their equipment increased shelf life and product quality. Stillinger said Marel Food Systems equipment uses X-ray imaging to show human workers the locations of pin bones while computer-controlled filleting machines can increase yield by 1.5 percent and eliminate six to eight jobs.

While the congress demonstrated that fish aren’t just for eating any more, a presentation by Knapp, the University of Alaska researcher, was praised for its reality-check on the real possibilities of seafood technology in Alaska.

“There’s a lot of value-adding we don’t do that we couldn’t do,” Knapp said. He offered eight points to help measure the worth of high tech and other value-added processing for private companies and public policy.

“Not all value adding is necessarily profitable or optimal for a processor,” Knapp noted. He also said short season, high or uncertain volumes, isolation of harvest grounds, transportation and energy costs of Alaska’s wild stock fisheries all weigh against a “build it and profits will flow” approach to technology.

“The optimal thing for the overall view of the processing industry may be to produce a mix of products that involves less full utilization than otherwise might be profitable,” Knapp said.

Linda Chaves, from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration office in Seattle, acknowledged that US companies are less involved than others in high value production of fish byproducts but said they’re getting more involved in the arena. “I know that there’s a greater use of byproducts by the industry and I know we’re throwing a lot less away,” Chaves said following the congress.

Knapp and others noted that while fishmeal is a lower-value byproduct of seafood manufacturing, the unending growth of aquatic farming is raising meal prices across the globe. Jonathan Shepherd, director general of the International Fish Meal and Fish Oil Organization, said meal production has remained steady in the range of seven million tons annually while the use has shifted dramatically.

In the 1960s just over 50 percent of all fishmeal was used for pig feed and the rest fed chickens. In 2008 the aquaculture business bought 58% of world meal production. Pigs accounted for 30.9% of production, chickens for just 9.1%. Fish oil production almost doubled from 15 million tons in 2000 to 27 million in 2008, Shepherd noted with the expectation that fish farming will continue to take a growing share.

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