Meeting Specifications

These days, nearly all commercial food products are grown, harvested, cut and packaged in accordance with specifications.

Governments specify the minimum requirements that must be met to ensure consumer health and safety. Food retailers, restaurant operators and other food service organizations specify additional requirements to ensure their products will be attractive to consumers, meet targeted price points and fit into their production and distribution systems. Both sets of specifications are designed to ensure that the products themselves and consumer responses to them are predictable and reliable — consistent with the need for predictability I discussed in last month’s column.

Concerns about food safety and quality go back a long way in human history.

Adam and Eve probably learned very quickly that an apple was at its best when it was plucked from a tree, but deteriorated if it was left around for a while in the heat after being picked.

Those concerns became much greater, when people moved into cities and depended on food harvested in rural areas, some distance away, that had to be transported and stored before they could be consumed.

It was probably even more of a concern for armies involved in combat, which needed good quality food to enable them to fight. During the Spanish-American War in 1898, 379 soldiers died in combat, but over 1,000 died from consuming spoiled canned meat.

For most of human history, there were few standards or regulations for producing, processing, or selling food. Meat processing plants were notoriously filthy.

Upton Sinclair wrote a book, The Jungle, that brought conditions in the plants to light, prompting investigations and new legislation designed to improve food safety. Since then, food safety issues have become a major concern and the subject of a lengthy list of government and industry initiatives to make improvements.

More recently, food retailing and food service in restaurants and institutions have been revolutionized to ensure steady flows of fresh products from around the world, offer convenience, improve efficiencies and provide consumers with attractive products at reasonable costs. Because they are in extremely competitive industries, operators of different food stores and restaurants also look for ways to distinguish the products they offer consumers from similar products offered by others. For both these reasons, they have increasingly developed specifications for the products they want to buy and demanded that suppliers meet those specifications consistently.

Aquaculture fits well into this way of doing business.

Newly-hatched fish of a single species are placed in farm sites and grown to meet customers’ specifications for size and quality. When they reach marketable size, they are harvested in response to customer orders, processed to meet customer requirements and delivered fresh to the locations where they are sold and/or consumed.

Similarly, farmers grow animals to specifications — e.g. size and fat content — imposed by processors, grocery stores and restaurants. And meat packers cut the meat to specifications, as well.

The capture fishery has long struggled with these requirements.

Since shortly after Eve picked the first apple, people have been concerned about the quality of fish they are offered and their own abilities to differentiate the good from the bad.

As I have said before in this column, that is one of the reasons the vast majority of seafood consumption in North America happens in restaurants, rather than at home — very much different from other foods.

Canada has a world-leading system to ensure the health and safety of our food products. I know, because I was involved in developing the system for fish and seafood during the late 1980s. The principles we used were later adopted by other countries and applied to other types of food, so it is now the global standard used to facilitate international trade in food products.

Because of our world-leading system, fish and seafood produced in Canada are very unlikely to kill someone who consumes our products or even make them sick. On the other hand, we still have a lot of work to do to ensure our products meet customers’ expectations.

Fish harvested from nature vary in species, size and quality. How they are harvested, handled, processed, stored and transported all have significant impacts on quality, as well.

Our industry has long had a reputation for inconsistent quality that has had significant impacts on the marketability of its products and the prices people are willing to pay for them. And the industry’s image has been repeatedly damaged by people who represented the quality of their products as being better than it actually was.

Fundamentally, the problem we have is that our customers want products that are consistent in size and quality, but we harvest fish from nature that vary a lot in size and quality. Our challenge is to take the variable raw materials and turn them into consistent products, using a labour-intensive process, employing human beings who vary in their performance.

A significant complicating factor is that our industry is highly seasonal, with large peaks in landings, followed by months of low or no landings. In other words, we must try to produce consistent products in large volumes, with people who only get to practice their trade for short seasons. It’s a tall order.

But it’s worth pointing out that we are not the only ones faced with such a problem. For example, sawmills must take trees harvested from nature that vary in species, size and quality and turn them into lumber with consistent size and quality characteristics. However, they are able to operate year-round and use much more technology than human labour to do the work.

Agricultural products can also vary but, similar to aquaculture, fields or herds are all a single species and typically a single year-class, decreasing the range of variability. Plant crops are planted, grown and harvested seasonally, creating peaks and valleys in availability, but animals can be grown, harvested, processed and marketed on an ongoing basis. In other words, other industries have similar issues, but none has all of the same sources of variation as the capture fishery.

Quality is one of those words most people think they understand but really don’t.

It does not mean perfection or goodness. In the practical terms that must be used in a production setting, it means fitness for the intended use, which is much more than simple goodness. Achieving a high level of goodness is always a good thing but there are markets at different prices for different levels of goodness.

The challenge in production is to sort variable raw materials into products suited for different uses and ensure those products are consistent so that, whatever the level of goodness, customers can count on it being the same time after time after time.

Goodness refers to the intrinsic quality of a product, which varies as fish go through annual cycles of migration, feeding and reproduction. Intrinsic quality is also significantly affected by the methods used to catch, handle, store and transport fish, as well as the time between harvest and consumption. It can be assessed differently for different species of fish. For example, fat content is typically an important variable for pelagic species, but not for groundfish.

In addition to intrinsic quality, fitness for use includes considerations such as size, nutritional values, any defects that may affect how attractive a product is to a customer or how it is used, the workmanship used during processing activities and even how products are packaged.

Variability in captured fish places a lot of demands on the processing sector to turn raw materials into consistent products for particular markets — i.e. for different intended uses. Products suited for one use may not be suitable for another. In our snow crab sector, for example, crab that are missing a limb or covered in barnacles are typically sold for meat extraction, while whole crab without barnacles are turned into “retail” sections.

From a commercial perspective, quality is a problem, if the customer does not get products with the characteristics that were expected and paid for.

Not meeting a customer’s expectations often leads to the customer looking elsewhere for supply. As a minimum, the customer will not likely be willing to pay full price for a product that does not measure up.

During the early-to-mid-1980s, I was involved in many projects aimed at improving the industry’s quality performance. At the time, we were working hard to turn around an industry that had gone bankrupt. In trying to do that, we focused on finding ways to get more product value from our raw materials. It was a struggle, because the quality of the raw materials provided by the harvesting sector was almost universally very poor.

Some changes were made, including adoption of the insulated fish boxes that are now in common use, and there were improvements, but they were slow and difficult, because practically the entire production system had to change.

As we were in the middle of this effort, Long John Silver’s (LJS), a fast-food restaurant chain based in the United States, came to Atlantic Canada looking for a supply of our cod to turn into fish and chips in its restaurants. LJS had a written specification for the product it wanted, something that was almost unheard of in our industry at the time.

Nearly everyone in the industry thought the specification was too difficult to meet — and that was to make fish and chips, with the fish coated in batter and deep-fried, not to serve a beautiful-looking cod fillet in a high-end restaurant.

Around the same time, in another project, I visited a sample of fish plants in Atlantic Canada, investigating practices related to quality.

Among the questions I asked the operator of each plant was, “Do you have written product specifications?” No one did — with one exception.

So, I asked the one operator who said he had written specifications how he communicated them to people on the production line. He said he didn’t tell his workers what the specifications were, because that might lead to other plants learning what they were.

How you can expect to produce to a specification without knowing what it is remains a mystery to me.

Do you think you could produce a reliable airplane engine without telling your employees how to make one? How about a car? Or even a McDonald’s Big Mac?

In any business, is it a good idea to let your employees make a product any way they want? If they do, will customers have a consistently good experience every time? I don’t think so.

Unfortunately, we haven’t really improved much since the 1980s.

The bad practices common then have been carried forward. And the biggest part of the problem is in the harvesting sector, with the way fish are caught and handled.

After the moratoriums on fishing cod and other groundfish that started in 1992 and continue to this day, our industry refocused mainly on shellfish, specifically lobster, crab, shrimp and scallops. Each one of these fisheries still struggles with quality issues.

A good part of the problem in the capture fishery is that every harvester is producing to his/her own standard that is not related to what customers want, because they have no idea what customers want. A common refrain is, “that’s good enough” but it is not.

Processors contribute to that problem, when they are willing to buy raw materials and pay the same price for them, regardless of quality. Harvesters won’t admit there is a problem with quality, because they say, “I don’t have a problem selling my fish.” And they don’t — but that doesn’t mean we don’t have a problem with quality.

In one amazing episode of the television show Cold Water Cowboys, harvesters demonstrated clearly they were more concerned with how much they got paid for a bad batch of crab than they were about the customers who would buy it.

As the story went, a vessel load of crab received a poor quality grade at landing, because the crab had not been properly iced. The harvesters were concerned that the crab might be rejected, and they would not be paid for their catch. But their tension was relieved when they learned that a processor would buy their catch at the full price.

No one looked good in that show and anyone watching it must have made a mental note not to buy crab caught in Atlantic Canada. I stopped watching the show after that because it was too hard on my blood pressure.

Capture fishing is the business we have chosen to be in, so we have to learn to be good at it. And it can be done. Iceland has done much better with quality — and gets more money from its fish — because everyone knows what is expected of them and is committed to achieving it.

Here in Atlantic Canada, our quality issues have been highlighted repeatedly in studies and reports. The same issues have been identified for decades but there has been no resolution to them.

If there is no quality standard and no accountability when quality is poor, how can we ever expect to improve?

Robert Verge

Managing Director of the Canadian Centre for Fisheries Innovation — Newfoundland

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