Unlocking the menu appeal of fish and seafood

The wide range of fish and seafood found in UK waters has been in the headlines recently – and, sadly, not for the most positive reasons. The opportunity for the UK fishing fleet to take back control of the catch was promoted as a key benefit of Brexit, but unfortunately, the reality that much of the seafood caught in the UK is exported meant that many fishing businesses have been reported to be facing significantly increased form-filling and red tape.

A new documentary shown on Netflix, called Seaspiracy, has also raised concerns, not only suggesting there are high levels of fraud within the global seafood supply chain, but also questioning the validity of many of the sustainability claims made by industry.

In another report, a survey using DNA analysis found that mislabelling of fish and seafood species is widespread, and has been identified as a particular issue in restaurants across Europe. This can mean that protected species are finding their way into the supply chain, and that less popular varieties are being sold, and so featured on menus, as more popular species.

This presents challenges to hospitality and catering businesses as they work towards reopening after the long lockdown. Many will be considering the appeal of fish and seafood on menus, which is popular with customers looking for interesting dishes that they may not be confident to prepare themselves at home.

The best advice is to work with reputable suppliers, but doing so doesn’t mean that operators can absolve themselves of responsibility. It’s important that staff involved in ordering and preparing fish and seafood also take the time to understand the issues around supply and sustainability.

In the UK, the most popular species with consumers are sometimes called the Big Five – cod, haddock, tuna, salmon, and prawns. Ironically, these often have to be imported to meet demand, at the same time as fresh fish landed by the UK fleet is seeking an export market.

Among the species exported in large quantities from the UK to EU markets are mackerel, herring and sardines, as well as shellfish including crab, lobster and langoustine. There are also many white fish varieties, such as hake, sole, plaice, coley and John Dory, that are regularly caught in UK waters, and can be substituted for breaded or battered cod and haddock.

By offering a broader range of species caught in UK waters, operators can show support for the fishing industry, and by spotlighting where fish used on the menu has been caught, also engage customers interested in supporting sustainably caught and farmed British produce.

The issue of fraud and mislabelling is more complex. Fish that has been caught and processed close to home, under UK regulations, is far less likely to have been caught using unsustainable methods, or to have been deliberately or accidentally mislabelled in terms of species. While there is no room for complacency, and the health of the oceans is everyone’s responsibility, buying UK-caught fish and seafood from a reputable supplier is a good starting point when it comes to responsible sourcing.

There are some simple steps that chefs can take to help persuade customers to enjoy a broader range of fish and seafood species, while at the same time buying produce when it’s at its best in terms of value, quality and availability:

  • Use descriptions such as ‘market fish’ or ‘catch of the day’ on menus in order to vary the species served according to changes in availability from suppliers;
  • Build a repertoire of simple dishes that can be used to serve a variety of species – for example, most filleted white fish can be served grilled, either on its own or lightly breadcrumbed, accompanied by fresh seasonal vegetables, as a light and healthy menu option;
  • Combine less familiar species with more popular varieties in recipes such as fish pie, chowder and seafood medley, to make the most of the full range offered by suppliers;
  • Substitute smoked salmon with high quality, good value smoked mackerel or smoked trout in starters and buffets;
  • When ordering whole fish, ask suppliers about the yield to expect, which can vary considerably according to the species. If in doubt, or where kitchen skills are a challenge, it may make sense to pay a little more for the supplier to prepare and fillet the fish, in order to maximise yield and reduce food waste;
  • If in any doubt about the provenance or identification of fish supplied, be ready to raise concerns with the supplier.

Industry body Seafish has produced a blog which sets out to answer the criticisms of the industry in the Seaspiracy documentary, acknowledging that there are issues, but also focusing on the positive work that is being done, Read it here: Responding to Seaspiracy: 10 reasons to feel good about seafood in the UK

Information about the worrying findings of DNA investigations into mislabelling can be found in this article: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/mar/15/revealed-seafood-happening-on-a-vast-global-scale

Lynx Purchasing is a member of the Sustainable Seafood Coalition (SSC) which is working to ensure that all fish and seafood sold in the UK comes from sustainable sources. We were the first purchasing group to join, and our membership is part of the wider commitment to sustainability across our business. For more information see www.sustainableseafoodcoalition.org

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