New technology takes power from the fish side

In the meat industry, it is common to process the whole animal into food products. In the fish industry, more than half the weight of fish ends up in side streams that never reach our plates. This harms the environment and does not fit in with Swedish food and fishing strategies. Now food researchers at Chalmers are introducing new sorting technology which means we get five good cuts of fish and not just the fillet. A herring processing plant on the west coast of Sweden is already implementing the new method.

When the fillet itself is removed from a fish, valuable side streams remain, which can be turned into products such as nuggets, ground meat, protein isolates or omega-3 rich oils. Despite such potential, these products leave the food chain to become animal feed – or in the worst case, are thrown away. To harness valuable nutrients and shift to more sustainable procedures, the way we process fish must change.

All cuts are treated with care

“With our new sorting method, the whole fish is treated with the same care as the fillet. The focus is on maintaining quality throughout the value chain. Instead of putting the different side streams in one bin to become by-products, they are processed separately, just like in the meat industry,” says research director Ingrid Undeland, professor of food science in the Department of Biology and Biological Engineering from Chalmers.

The research was conducted as part of an international project called Waseabi. wasabi is a four-year interdisciplinary project aiming to better valorize the secondary products of the seafood industry by stabilizing them and developing new methods of food production. Researchers from Chalmers University, a key partner in the project, recently published their findings in the scientific journal, food chemistry.

“Our study shows that this type of sorting technology is important, particularly because it helps prevent highly perishable secondary cuts from mixing with more stable cuts. This new method offers new opportunities to produce high-quality food,” says Chalmers researcher Haizhou Wu, first author of the scientific paper.

New sorting technology means the fillet, backbones, caudal fin, head, ventral flap and viscera can all be separated. The backbone and head are the richest in muscle and therefore well suited to becoming fish mince or protein ingredients. Since the flap and intestines are rich in marine omega-3s, they can be used for oil production.

The caudal fin has lots of skin, bone and connective tissue and is therefore well suited for things such as the production of marine collagen, a highly sought after ingredient on the market right now. In addition to food, marine collagen is also used in cosmetics and nutraceuticals, with documented good effects on the health of our joints and skin.

“The interest is there”

The new sorting method to separate the five different cuts is being introduced in one of the partner companies of the research project. The Swedish fish processing company Pelagic in Ellös on the island of Orust already uses parts of the method in its production and has achieved good results.

“Sorting technology gives us many more opportunities to develop healthy, new and tasty foods and expand our product range. This year we estimate that we will produce around 200-300 tonnes of minced meat from one of the new cuts and we aim to increase this figure year on year. The interest is there, in the food industry and public meal production segments such as school catering”, explains Martin Kuhlin, CEO of Sweden Pelagic.

The hidden opportunities in fish processing

The European fish processing industry is large, generating an annual turnover of nearly €28 billion while employing over 122,000 people. However, the industry faces several challenges. For example, it is estimated that 1.5 million tonnes of secondary seafood products are produced in Europe, based on a production of 5.1 million tonnes of fish caught.

In Sweden, it is estimated that 30,000 to 60,000 tonnes of secondary seafood flows are generated each year; some 35 to 70 times more than the Swedish cod catches. This means that the current use of aquatic biomass for food is far too low. When producing nets, up to 70% of aquatic resources end up as side streams, which are either used for low-value products such as animal feed or thrown away, harming the environment and sometimes also to the companies concerned.

Read about a previous research breakthrough of the project: New dipping solution turns whole fish into valuable food.

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