Cod dethroned as British whitefish king

Published on
March 16, 2023
Fish and chips.

Cod has iconic status in the United Kingdom. It’s been the go-to fish for Brits for generations, largely underpinned by its standing as the champion of the fish-and-chips trade. However, retail sales of cod in the U.K. have been dwarfed by farmed salmon, and in the past year, its position as the U.K.’s top-selling whitefish has been lost – to pollock.

Sofina E.U. Procurement Director for Seafood Andrew Allchurch said at the North Atlantic Seafood Forum (NASF) on 8 March that “against some pretty strong headwinds,” pollock has been holding up whitefish sales in retail channels, with its value and volume sold for the 52 weeks ending January 2023 up 9 percent and 6 percent, respectively.

Analysis conducted by Sofina, the multi-protein parent owner of U.K. company Young’s Seafood, has determined that cod hasn’t fared well in the U.K.’s current economic climate. Its sales figures for the same period are down 12 percent in volume and 6 percent in value.

It’s not only cod that’s been affected, with salmon following a similar trend, with sales down 12 percent by volume, and 5 percent by value.

“Prawns and haddock are doing a little better, but pollock is the star performer,” Allchurch said.

Sofina found cod has been losing popularity for at least five years, having seen a 15 percent reduction in sales over that period. The only other seafood species that saw declines in their overall sales were mackerel, at 24 percent, and tuna, at 11 percent. Over the same time period, pangasius has experienced a 20 percent increase in volumes sold, and pollock has seen a 9 percent increase.

Allchurch said while salmon sales took off in the pandemic, pollock’s lift-off came later.

“It’s only really been since the Ukraine invasion and the cost-of-living crisis that pollock has really picked up and salmon and cod have come down,” he said.

Another factor that’s likely contributed to cod’s demise is that most U.K. retailers, with the exception of Waitrose, have now removed their fresh fish counters from their shop floors. That’s really driven a reduction in certain formats and species, Allchurch said.

“Those trends are likely to continue, and probably next year pollock will become the number-one species in the U.K.,” he said.

Allchurch said the country’s inflation rate, which stands at a 40-year-high, and higher energy prices have been driving up the cost of living, and in turn leading consumers to completely change their shopping habits.

“There really is only one tailwind that’s growing volume in the U.K. market and that is the population growth,” Allchurch said.”And that [population growth] is not very high in terms of digits.”

Food inflation is presently running at 17 percent. While seafood price inflation has been faring quite well within that context, with chilled seafood at 9 percent inflation and frozen seafood at 12 percent, it remains a “relatively discretionary category,” Allchurch said.

“Consumers have to buy their staple products first, and [those] have been hit particularly hard,” he said, giving the examples of 33 percent inflation on toilet paper, cooking oil at 33 percent, and milk at 34 percent. “That erodes the available money in peoples’ pockets and what’s left for the discretionary categories."

 U.K. consumers are switching from chilled to frozen foods, with the latter perceived as cheaper; They are also buying a lot more private-label products and a lot fewer branded items, said Allchurch. Furthermore, they are changing retailer format – from higher quality stores to discounters.

According to Sofina’s analysis, since April 2022, there has been a 1,000-metric ton (MT) switch from chilled fish into the frozen category. With this has come a change in the formats that consumers are buying, with less chilled smoked salmon and fish fillets sold, replaced by sales of lower-priced fish fingers and fishcakes.

Over the past year, across the U.K., chilled seafood has been one of the worst-performing food categories, Allchurch said. Frozen seafood has lost 3 percent of its sales by volume, while staples like dried pasta and rice have increased their volumes.

“Chilled seafood in particular is one of the hardest[-hit] sectors that customers are buying into,” he said.

Collectively, chilled and frozen seafood sales are down 8 percent by volume, while its main competitors of chicken, pork, and beef are down 5 percent, 7 percent, and 9 percent, respectively.

According to an attitudinal survey conducted by Sofina, 85 percent of people are ... 

Photo courtesy of Ben Molyneux/Shutterstock

Contributing Editor reporting from London, UK

Want seafood news sent to your inbox?

You may unsubscribe from our mailing list at any time. Diversified Communications | 121 Free Street, Portland, ME 04101 | +1 207-842-5500