Quality is Biggest Issue Facing the Fishery Today

Of all the challenges we have in the capture fishery in Atlantic Canada — and there are many — probably none is bigger or more important to the future of the industry than the need to improve the quality of our raw materials and finished products.

Quality is a foundation piece — it underpins everything else, determining what is possible in processing and marketing, our ultimate output value, the incomes earned by harvesters and plant workers and the profitability of plants and fishing enterprises.

But, despite the importance of quality, we haven’t performed very well. Unfortunately, that is not a new problem. It goes back many generations, so we have the weight of history to overcome. My personal history of trying to deal with it goes back more than 30 years.

Quality problems are something many people in the industry don’t like to talk about so, in some ways, our poor performance is our dirty little secret. But it is not really a secret.
Among seafood buyers, products from the capture fishery in Atlantic Canada have had a reputation for inconsistent — often poor — quality that goes back to the saltfish era, continued into the frozen groundfish era, and persists today in shellfish.

The people who buy our products know all about our quality issues and pay for our products accordingly. That has cost us a lot of money for a long time. It is time we had a serious adult discussion about it.

It isn’t that we don’t talk about quality enough. Quality is talked about a lot. Unfortunately, talk is cheap. We typically talk about it by defending practices we shouldn’t be defending. We can’t solve the problem until we admit we have one and start doing something about it.

In addition, the talk is often based on misunderstandings of what quality is, what we need to do and how we need to do it. Quality is one of those words many people use but few truly understand. A fundamental problem is that quality means different things to different people. To the user of a product, quality is fitness for the intended purpose. Think about that for a moment, because it is a different definition from the one most people would use.

Different buyers and consumers use essentially the same raw materials differently. For example, some buyers want to buy cod or haddock essentially unprocessed; others want to buy just the loins cut from the thickest part of the fillet or the tails and still others want to buy rectangular blocks made from fillets they can cut into consistent-sized portions to be coated with breading or batter. Because buyers’ needs differ, they also differ in how much they are willing to pay.

As the old saying goes, “you get what you pay for.” The reverse is also true — you pay for what you get. Each product attracts a different price from the buyer. Not all need or want the best quality or are willing to pay for it. But some do need and want the best quality and are willing pay to get it. The same logic holds for products made from lobsters, scallops, crab, and shrimp, not just groundfish.

Most people think of quality as ‘goodness’, measured in absolute terms.

The ‘goodness’ of a fish product is impacted by three things:

  1. intrinsic quality, based on the condition of the fish at the time of capture;
  2. how well that intrinsic quality is preserved through harvesting, transportation, processing, and distribution;
  3. the workmanship during processing to remove any defects and sort raw materials into products for different markets.

We have problems in all three, because we sometimes catch fish when they are in poor condition, we don’t catch them with the right gear or handle them as well as we should to preserve quality and we have difficulty sorting variable raw materials into products that are consistent in quality.

If raw materials are consistently high in quality — i.e. ‘goodness’ — they are suitable for any market, so a full range of marketing options is available. Output value is then limited only by the markets we have access to. But, if the raw materials vary in quality, they have to be sorted into products for which they are appropriate. And the greater the variability of the raw materials, the more challenging it is to turn out consistent products.

Therein lays the problem, because our raw materials vary a lot in quality. No doubt some are very good in quality. But they are not consistently good and the not-so-good raw materials get mixed with the good ones, making it difficult to achieve consistently good products.

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One of the key elements of processing fish is dealing with the range of needs and expectations of different customers. Another is dealing with the variability of the raw materials available for processing.

Essentially, variable raw materials have to be turned into products that consistently meet expectations. Processing cannot improve on the quality of the incoming raw material; it can only try to sort the raw material into different products for which the quality is appropriate and maximize the output value. It may look easy but it isn’t.

Raw materials are inconsistent in quality because harvesters aren’t thinking about consumers, markets, or output value when they make their catches and deliver them. They are more concerned with their own immediate cash flow and that translates into more concern for quantity of catch than quality. Excess capacity in the processing sector typically means buyers are also prepared to overlook quality for more quantity. Harvesters know that and are quite happy to tell processors they can sell their catches elsewhere, if they don’t buy, because someone else is almost always willing to buy.

Unfortunately, that is short-term gain for long-term pain. The battle may be won but the war is lost.

Because we have not done a good job with quality, many of our products sell in low-value markets. That is because a lot of our output doesn’t meet the standards of buyers of high-value products.

We can sell our products but we don’t get as much value for them as we should.

Over the past few years, lobster fishers have found that improving quality was one of the things needed to improve the prices they could get for their increasing catches. When resource abundance and catches are decreasing — as they are with shrimp and crab — it becomes increasingly important to maximize the value of the catches that are made, something that requires better quality. And cod harvesters in 3Ps have found out the hard way that, when quality is not good, buyers disappear.

As cod and other groundfish species increase in abundance, improving our quality performance will be essential for developing markets for the products.

I am quite certain practically everyone in the industry can recognize good or bad quality when they see it. People know how to choose the best when they pick products to take home to consume themselves. Most probably even know what it takes to produce good quality, but they don’t do it, at least not consistently.

What we lack is the will to change what we do in a meaningful way. Instead, we complain that prices paid for the raw materials are too low, saying something like, “If they pay me for s**t, I’ll give them s**t.”

Unfortunately, the world doesn’t work that way. In the real world, if you want a better price, you have to demonstrate you can produce better quality — not just one day but every day.

The truth is no one wants to buy products that are poor or inconsistent in quality. If that is what we offer, there are buyers, but not necessarily the buyers we want or the prices we would like to get.

You can’t sell a product with poor intrinsic quality to a white table cloth restaurant, but you may be able to sell it to a user who doesn’t need the very best in quality, at a lower price. And that means less money flows back through the value chain to the harvesters who supplied the raw materials and the plant workers who tried to salvage as much value as they could from them.

As I said earlier, this has been a problem for a long time. There is no doubt we do better with quality today than we did years ago. But we still don’t meet market expectations, because those expectations are much higher now than they used to be.

Aquaculture now supplies nearly 50 per cent of the seafood for human consumption and supplies markets year-round with fresh products that are consistent in size and quality. Other suppliers in the capture fishery have recognized that and improved their quality to compete.

But we still have people in our industry who either don’t know or don’t care and that costs everyone who earns an income based on sale of fish, not just those whose performance is lacking.

In the future, expectations will be even higher. And, if we get back into a larger groundfish fishery, as seems likely, we will have a big wall to climb to re-enter markets. The challenge of meeting market expectations will be even bigger than it is with shellfish.

If we want to build a better fishery for the future, we have to be committed to improving the quality of our raw materials and seafood products.

Robert Verge

Managing Director of the Canadian Centre for Fisheries Innovation — Newfoundland

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