Mixed messages

In the company of 14 of the United Kingdom’s top food writers at a sustainable seafood seminar recently, I was dismayed by their poor understanding of the seafood industry. These are highly influential people who help form public opinion, yet their knowledge was lacking on all fronts.

Only two in the group had ever dressed a crab, and few had ever handled whole fish. There were looks of mild panic from some as they realized they had to prepare mackerel, haddock, monkfish, gurnard, langoustine, crab, oysters and mussels from scratch. What advice do they give their readers, I wondered? “Buy ready prepared fish or get a good fishmonger,” said one sheepishly. What a waste of good fish bones for stock!

More worrying than a lack of handling skills was a muddled appreciation of sustainability issues. This can be attributed to sensationalist reporting by the mainstream media and the mixed messages put out by different NGOs, which cannot seem to agree on which seafood is in and which is out. To the first group I plea, “Act responsibly and give us properly researched articles.” And to the second group I say, “Please get your collective acts together and stop confusing the issue.”

A case in point is a recent BBC program titled “Britain’s Really Disgusting Food: Fish,” which presented a highly biased and one-sided view of the fishing industry and regurgitated Dalhousie University professor Boris Worm’s 2006 assertion that there will be no fish left in the sea in 50 years. Worm has long since retracted this hypothesis, but it is still being used for sensationalist TV by lazy journalists.

Reaction to the program was swift, with condemnation coming from Seafish, the UK’s seafood industry authority, and from the main UK fishing federations. It was also slammed by MPs, one of whom tabled a motion in Parliament, berating the BBC for screening a program that presented a highly misleading view of the fishing industry and ignoring the conservation measures currently being pioneered.

The Scottish Fishermen’s Federation and the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations agreed that the programme ignored the true situation regarding commercial fishing in the UK, with stocks recovering and many undergoing MSC certification. “This was an extremely damaging program to the UK fishing industry, where the true facts were simply ignored,” said a joint statement.

Meanwhile, the UK consumer is reacting to all the mixed messages by failing to understand the importance of provenance, catch methods, sustainability and seasonality. Recent qualitative research undertaken by Seafish found that consumers find these concepts overwhelming.

“The supply chain is interested in these aspects because it helps them differentiate their supplies, but the public has little understanding of words such as “line caught,” explained Karen Galloway, Seafish marketing manager. “Consumers trust the processor/retailer to deliver sustainable seafood, but the bottom line is and always will be price.”

Seafish research into shoppers’ attitudes toward seafood found that the main negative factors affecting purchase decisions are bones, skin, heads, tails and smell, which is why ready prepared ranges score highly. “There is a real lack of understanding about how to handle seafood and ready prepared outsells whole seafood,” said Karen.

Perhaps this is the reason I should not have been surprised by the journalists’ lack of seafood knowledge. They are playing to their audience, knowing that a recipe requiring someone to start with a whole fish will present problems.

The group left the seminar keen to experiment, and I look forward to reading their articles in the months to come. I also hope they pass on their new found skills to readers, so that they too may experience the joys of freshly prepared seafood.

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