Norway’s whitefish processors fight for survival

For some time countries with high labor costs have been sending whole frozen fish to countries such as China, where the costs of processing these fish are but a fraction of those where the fish are landed. However, it seems as though the countries where the fish are caught could be in danger of losing their processing industries altogether.

Kristján Hallvarðsson, director of product development for Marel, the world’s biggest manufacturer of fish processing equipment, is concerned that Norway’s whitefish processing industry might not survive in its current form beyond the next five years.

“If nothing is done to improve yield and increase automation in Norway within two to four years, the risk is that there will be significantly less whitefish processing left in Norway,” he said. “It will be too expensive; Norway can’t compete with re-processing whitefish in China.”

In an effort to help rectify the situation, Marel is heading up a project to develop automatic pinboning equipment for whitefish species such as cod. The aim is to reduce the amount of flesh that is currently removed from the fillet by cutting out the pinbones by hand.

Called “Apricot,” the project is being carried out in conjunction with SINTEF (the Foundation for Scientific and Industrial Research) in Norway. Also involved are two big Scandinavian seafood companies, Norway Seafoods in Norway and Samherji in Iceland.

“The goal is to achieve as much as 2 to 4 percent improvement in yield,’ said Hallvarðsson, “which represents significant added value for our customers. At present 8 to 10 percent of the fillet is removed manually by the V-cut to take out the pinbones.”

Not only will there be an improvement in yield, but customers will have a more high value product, added Hallvarðsson. “Cutting out less flesh on the V-cut will leave more on the loin,” he said.

In addition to this project, Marel is trying to solve the pinboning problem in an entirely new way by “looking inside the fillet.” said Hallvarðsson: “We want to travel inside a cod fillet to understand the bone and muscle connection, to find out why the connection is so strong, and to try and loosen up the bone.

“We want to understand the food science behind the material and then we will be able to develop the equipment for removing the pinbones. We want to find out why things do or do not work. We don’t want to trust on luck, but on ideas fed back to our development team to try out.”

It is ironic that all this development is going on at a time when cod stocks are at a record high and that the quota in the Barents Sea, which is fished by Norway, may be increased by 25 percent next year, according to one report. “But a larger quota does not mean better results for the processing industry, of course,” said one Norwegian consultant.

Marel’s new unit consists of just two people so far, and, in addition to degrees in food, mechanical and industrial engineering, one of them also has degrees in food science. Although an integral part of Marel’s innovation team, the unit acts independently and is responsible for the company’s “long-term thinking.”

Marel is a firm believer in research and development, spending EUR 35 to 40 million (USD 44 to 51 million), or about 6 percent of its annual revenue, on this work in order to stay ahead of its competitors. “This for the whole group,” said Hallvarðsson. “We also manufacture processing equipment for the meat and poultry industries as well as for fish.

“And we transfer technology from one sector to the other. We are very active in doing that. We look two, five years ahead and assess each year what we need to do in our development program.”


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