In recent columns, I suggested that our industry is facing a very serious crisis, due to decreasing landings of our main commercial species (with the notable exception of lobster) and a shrinking workforce.
That means we need to do more with less. If we can’t catch more fish, we need to obtain more value per fish.
If we have fewer people, we need the people we do have to produce more output per person. I have also suggested how that might be done.
In this column, I will talk about the role of quality in dealing with both issues.
Obtaining more value per fish means two things, increasing the proportion of the fish we catch that goes into marketable products, rather than waste and selling our products in markets that offer higher prices. A report prepared for the national Seafood Value Chain Round Table in September 2017 outlined how the industry is losing a lot of potential product value, so we have a lot of room for improvement in these areas.
Making people more productive does not mean expecting them to work harder. Instead, we have to work smarter.
Our industry has long been labour-intensive, but we now compete with labour-intensive industries in other countries where people are paid much less, so our labour costs per unit of product are much higher than theirs. To make ourselves competitive in international markets, we have to reduce our dependence on labour, as other developed countries have done. That means we need to make greater use of technology, to improve productivity.
In addition, we need people to work for longer periods of the year. Because our industry is seasonal, we currently employ many people for only a short season. In other words, we don’t utilize their time very well. And employment for short seasons makes it difficult to attract new people to replace those who are leaving the industry.
We need to find ways to extend the operating season, so fewer people can produce the same output — or more, if there are opportunities to do so.
To increase both labour productivity and output value, one of the keys is to focus on improving the quality of the fish we land. I have been dealing with quality issues for nearly four decades, so it’s a topic I know well.
Early in my career, I spent years trying to find ways to get more value from poor quality raw materials — because that is what we had to work with. I have discussed quality issues before in this space, but it is especially important now, when our landings are at or near the lowest they have ever been.
Based on my experience, I know we lose a lot of product value because of the quality of raw materials plants get to process. Poor quality raw materials also require more work to turn them into marketable products. And the products themselves are still not likely to attract high value. That means we lose product value, use more labour and incur extra production costs, negatively impacting on the profitability of the industry.
Quality is a word that is used frequently but, nevertheless, is poorly understood by almost everybody. Different people have different ideas of what it means, so it is difficult to have a meaningful discussion about it, without defining what it means first.
A definition of quality I like is fitness for the intended use. In other words, different users need and expect different levels of quality — and they pay different prices.
What one customer finds acceptable and is willing to pay for is not the same as that of another. An operator of an expensive restaurant is willing to pay more than an operator of a fast-food restaurant — but also expects a much higher level of product quality.
Ultimately, fish products are sold to people who find them acceptable for what they intend to use them for. If they are poor in quality, customers won’t pay a high price. You may be able to get away with providing poor quality in the short term, but you certainly won’t in the long term, because you will get a reputation for delivering something less than was needed, wanted, expected — and paid for. Then, customers will either refuse to buy from you or pay you less than you might have gotten otherwise.
If you want higher prices from the market for your products, higher quality is the only route to getting it. As the saying goes, you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. And you can’t make high-value fish products out of low-quality raw materials.
Unfortunately, in our industry, the prices paid for raw materials do not reflect the quality of those materials. Harvesters maintain they don’t have a quality problem, because they get paid for top quality. However, getting paid the price for top quality raw materials does not mean top quality was actually delivered, as most readers of this column should know.
Raw materials that go into low-value uses are not expected to be high quality and they don’t attract high prices in the market. Our experience producing salted cod products and later cod blocks provided good examples of low-quality raw materials going into low-value products and attracting low market prices. The industry sectors producing both of those products went through bankruptcies because of it.
Quality is not just one thing; it has different dimensions.
The most basic is the condition of the fish at the time of capture, which varies at different times of year, due to feeding and spawning cycles, water temperatures, parasites, disease and other factors. Then, there is the impact on the fish from the type of fishing gear used, how they are brought aboard and how they are handled onboard.
There are further impacts due to transportation of the fish from landing points to where they are processed and how long they are in storage prior to processing. And there are impacts caused by the workmanship used during processing and the length of time fish are not iced, frozen, or preserved in other ways.
Finally, there is the impact on the fish while they are held in storage, transported to market and made available to consumers. Even consumers can cause quality problems, if they do not handle or prepare the fish properly for consumption, after they buy it.
What all that means is there are many opportunities for quality to deteriorate before the fish is consumed. Everyone involved in the process should be concerned about ensuring consumers have an enjoyable eating experience.
But that takes work.
Those willing to put in the work will get better market prices than those who are not. Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher, knew this when he said, “Quality is not an act. It is a habit.” And Henry Ford said, “Quality is doing it right when no one is looking.”
The challenge begins at the time of catch.
When things go wrong at the beginning, there is nothing people further along the chain can do to restore the loss of quality. The earlier in the process things go wrong, the less likely the quality will be sufficient to go into a high-value use.
Fish harvesters will only ever be paid a share of the eventual market value of the products their catches are turned into. Others get shares of that value, as well, for their work in processing, transport and distribution. Harvesters often complain that the share they get is not enough. But their share could be enough, if the products sold for higher prices. When products attract higher prices, there is more to go around for everyone.