If you don’t live close to a city that has a fresh food market, buying fresh seafood in the UK can be difficult. 30 years ago supermarkets introduced fresh fish counters along with butchery departments to make them a “onestop shop destination”. Unfortunately, that is now changing.
Starting in 2020, UK supermarkets used the distraction of a global pandemic to make changes that in normal times might have generated more reaction and protest from consumer groups.
Two of the four biggest British supermarket chains, Asda and Sainsbury’s, closed their fresh seafood counters in 2020 and 2021, sighting a need to cut costs even though they all posted record profits. In April 2022 Tesco joined them by closing the fresh seafood counters in 317 of its stores, giving many people on fixed income no choice if they want to buy fresh seafood.
Do supermarkets have some responsibility for creating this problem?
Starting in the 1990’s this push to open fresh seafood counters was seen as a good thing, but it soon began to squeezed out many of the independent fish mongers that existed in cities and towns up and down the UK. In the beginning, supermarkets sought industry advice from a group called Seafish who is a UK seafood leadership group and fishmongers were encouraged to come to work at supermarkets. However, in typical big business fashion the supermarkets didn’t do enough to train the additional staff they would need going forward or promote their fresh seafood departments, not just as a place to get fresh seafood but also as a source for information.
The Problems of Supermarkets Selling Seafood
UK supermarket upper management dictate what mix of seafood a supermarket can sell regardless of the ethic makeup of the area surrounding the store. Seafood managers have complained to me in the past that they could waste a lot less (seafood) if their head office would allow them to choose their own mix of what to sell based on customer requests. Some years back I have heard the same complaint from colleagues of mine from US.
Rigid Warehousing Systems
Rigid warehousing systems might work well for other types of goods but seafood is too perishable for that. Seafood bought from fish markets such as Grimsby then spends far too long being held at centralised warehouses rather than getting straight to the supermarkets. This obviously shortens the shelf of the seafood once it arrives. So in essence, poor inflexible management of Tesco’s Sainbury’s and Asda head offices has caused much of the waste or inconsistent quality.
Supermarket Management’s lack of seafood knowledge
There are “day boats” around some parts of the UK, that like the name says are only out fishing for a day before landing their catch. But many of the modern trawlers around most countries go out for a week, gut and ice the fish down so it could be a week old by the time it is landed. This of course makes it imperative to get the fish to the stores rather than sit for days in supermarket warehouses.
OneSize fits All
Another problem that supermarkets constantly get wrong is large size of its fresh seafood counters and there inflexibility. The stainless steel counters can look impressive on a Friday when it is fully stocked, but can look very uninviting on a Monday when the quanitity and the choice is much smaller. It would have been a much better if the fish counters were broken into sections that could be added to as the week progresses and demand increases. Some supermarkets within a group are clearly better at selling and promoting the fresh seafood than others, but this is always down to individual fishmongers rather an any training offered by the supermarkets.
Morrisons supermarkets (497 stores)
I contacted Morrisons, the only remaining supermarket company of the “big four” that continues to have an instore fresh seafood counter. Their press said, “That our fish counters will remain open.” I applaud them for not following Asda, Tesco and Sainsbury’s, particularly for people on fixed income or that don’t live close to a city that has a market, or people who just prefer to see what they are buying rather than take a chance of buying online.
Waitrose supermarkets (331 stores)
Waitrose has 331 supermarkets in the UK of which 270 of them have a fish counter, they are positioned at the top end of the supermarkets so I’d expect them to keep their fish counters open. A Waitrose spokesperson said they intend keep them open and said, “We work extremely hard to ensure that our customers have access to an exciting variety of sustainable fish and seafood.”
Packed using Modified Atmosphere
Asda, Sainsbury’s and Tesco now sell so-called “fresh fish” that is packed using modified atmosphere. This involves the removal of most of the oxygen and being replaced with either nitrogen or carbon dioxide. The removal of the oxygen extends the shelf life of the seafood but that is with several caveats; firstly the seafood needs to be consistently fresh before packaging, and also the system relies on the packaging not being compromised. So my own experiences with fish packed this way is inconsistent freshness because the fish was not fresh enough before hand. This is down to management decisions on quality control. The other elephant in the room on this issue is one of the supply of carbon dioxide, as during the pandemic in the UK and other countries manufacturers could not keep up with demand. Not to mention the eco issue of whether we should be using more CO2 for food packaging as experts are telling us we have too much in the atmosphere already?
Online Fresh Seafood
The growing number of online seafood selling companies is a testimony to the constant search by the public for more consistent fresh seafood. But this growing online business prices many people out of buying seafood which is barmy considering the UK is a small island surrounded by water full of fish. Some of the seafood supplied is actually frozen and then thawed out so is negates the possibility of freezing part of the order if you are having to buy more than you can use to satisfy minimum orders or get free P & P. The other problem in this form of supply is the unreliability of couriers companies who don’t always deliver the highly perishable seafood in the specified times.
Lack of leadership from the Tory government
A bit like “Nero playing his fiddle as Rome burns”.. a phrase often heard to describe our current government’s lack of action to ensure the continued viability of both farming and the UK fisheries industries, particularly since Brexit. One of the many lies told during the Brexit campaign was that voting for Brexit would allow us to take back control of food issues and our seas. This fabrication caused many fishermen and farmers to vote for Brexit which in reality was akin to turkeys voting for Christmas. It is hard to understand why the government continue to allow super trawlers to operate in UK waters hoovering up fish as though there was an endless supply?
Years Ago in the US
A friend and colleague of mine David Fey, who was the most knowledgeable person I have ever met on seafood anywhere in the world. He was hired to help an American supermarket chain improve their fresh seafood counters, drive sales and cut costs, but had to admit defeat because of the rigid upper management that did not implement his recommendations.
Cooking on television
Part of the problem of buying seafood in the UK is a lack of education and knowledge of the buying public and their reluctance to ask questions for fear of seeming dumb and ill informed. Whilst cooking shows on TV abound there is very little if any cooking shows that focus on seafood, about how to buy it, store it, that could improve people’s knowledge and confidence.
My closest independant fish monger is called the Fish Emporium and is a round trip of 18 1/2 miles. Their quality is second to none so it does sell out fast! One of the useful things they do is post every day a 2-3 minute video of what fish they have that day which is very useful. I just wish other fish mongers would follow this great example and use the tech that is available.
My readers around the world
I’m really interested in hearing from my readers that don’t live near the coast, of their experiences of buying fresh seafood in 2022.
How to Filet a Fish Made Easy
Here is a link to my YouTube video
Buying and Storing Seafood
My hints and tips to improve your seafood buying and storing skills!
A big thanks to Andy Gray who is the Trade Marketing Manager at Seafish for giving me his time and thoughts on this issue.