Swimming upstream

A night harvest at Huon’s Tasmanian operations.

A night harvest at Huon’s Tasmanian operations.

Is salmon becoming the ‘chicken of the sea’ in the eyes of foodservice operators? And if so, is this a problem for producers?

For food writer and presenter Lyndey Milan, the epiphany happened over dinner in New Zealand. She was there as a guest of Regal Salmon, listening to a speech by the international wine star Oz Clarke, who was exhorting the local wine industry to stop the looming commodification of sauvignon blanc. And she turned to her hosts and said, “That’s the threat you face with salmon if you don’t brand it and position it as a premium quality product”.

Later, back in Sydney, she explained: “When we first got salmon in Australia it was fabulous and everyone loved it, but now it’s become dumbed-down. Maybe it’s good that it’s accessible to all, but the industry hasn’t done itself a favour.”

She added that salmon becoming a commodity may explain why it seems to have lost popularity with the top end of the foodservice sector in recent years. “At the moment, salmon is sold in supermarkets without a brand,” she adds. “I really think brands are the way of the future for premium products.”

Seafood expert John Susman of Fisheads says there is no question that salmon has waned in popularity in recent years amongst ‘white tablecloth’ restaurants. However, he fundamentally disagrees it’s because it’s a commodity now.

“If you look at the fact that Australians consume about 16,000 tonnes of salmon per annum versus several hundred thousand tonnes of beef, I think it’s a long bow to draw to say that it’s a commodity,” he says.

However, he does believe an issue with salmon may be one of price: “Compare the cost of Australian salmon with Norweigan or Chilean and it’s about three times the price,” he says. “The flipside is, that’s why we’ve got such high quality. We have best practice at every level of the industry.”

Which suggests you could almost put forward the argument that with prices probably headed north, salmon, is, if anything, becoming too premium: “The whole salmon sells in the wholesale market for $15.80 a kilo. The whole fish price at retail is at about $25. Supermarkets have had producers under contract until the end of June, so when that ends the price will shoot up to about $35 a kilo, and an average portion is going to cost about $7. Which is expensive.”

Interestingly, both Milan and Susman agree on one thing—that the future of marketing salmon lies in branding it. “There’s a marked difference in salmon grown in different places at different times of the year,” says Susman. “You’d never expect a wine to go to market as ‘white wine’, but that’s how salmon is treated. Why isn’t Macquarie Inlet salmon in September celebrated for being at the peak of its condition, for example? The media aren’t doing this, and chefs aren’t doing this—chefs are all claiming they’re regionally and seasonally-driven. You’d think every chef cycles down to the fish market every morning with a beret and a wicker basket. I can tell you, it’s a rare occasion you see a chef down at the fish markets without a camera crew in tow.”

According to Huon Aquaculture’s David Whyte, both Milan and Susman are right—but having salmon widely available is not necessarily a bad thing. “We also farm ocean trout, and we see that as a more boutique species than salmon,” he says. “People eat salmon regularly, but with the chefs at white tablecloth restaurants, they have to have a certain view which is linked to food fashions—if everyone’s doing salmon, maybe, they think, we should do something else.

It’s the idea that for innovation in food you need exclusivity. It’s true that globally, salmon doesn’t have the cache it once had, because people can experience it at home.” However, he adds, just because something’s widely available doesn’t mean you can’t appreciate its versatility. “You think about what’s a commodity,” he explains. “Beef is a commodity, yet within that you have wagyu beef. There’s segmentation in that market and people value certain characteristics because of that.

“I think we would want people to understand where we’re from, and what salmon can be used for, but we don’t want it to be too special. If certain aspects of it are valued, that’s great, but that shouldn’t exclude others from enjoying it.”

But according to Stephen Gibson of New Zealand’s Regal King Salmon, the broad popularity of salmon has created a niche for products like his. “We call it ‘chickenifying’ the market’,” he says. “Salmon isn’t considered that special for various reasons, partly due to price, partly due to taste, and we are trying to reinvent salmon and bring it back to menus.”

Gibson adds: “From our point of view, we see ourselves as being a bit different [to salmon normally sold in Australia] and the angle we are taking is all salmon is not created equal. The New Zealand King Salmon is a different species of fish. The benefits are taste, texture and colour, and it has twice the omega-3’s of Atlantic Salmon. The oil content allows it to freeze better if it needs to be frozen. It’s different to Atlantic Salmon. So its about the species.”

Regal salmon has had some success actively marketing that to foodservice operators, taking individual chefs out on farm tours in New Zealand and educating foodies about their product: “We do have a point of difference that means it’s targeted for foodservice and foodie industry personnel. We’re aiming for the gourmet fine food stores. We’re not really interested in general distribution.”

However, David Whyte says there isn’t as much of a distinction between the attitudes of the foodservice industry and those of the general public anymore. “Chefs have got an expectation of a product,” he says, “and it has to have provenance and they have to know it’s going to be fresh and tasty and so on. We don’t see that as being exclusive from other people who buy it.

“We have people who will buy our salmon at the local fishmonger and ring us up and ask how we farm our fish.

“It’s not about lining up on the side of the people or the gentry. Salmon has to be certified, documented and described, and people want to know more about what they eat, and not see their food as simply fuel. Whether that’s TV shows or food writing making these things seem more important, I don’t know, but there seems to be a lot more interest. And I think that’s fundamentally a good thing. It’s not just chefs interested in that, it’s individuals too.”

Furthermore, he says, if you compare it against other protein sources, Whyte believes it’s an advantage that salmon isn’t an expensive product.

“We see it as versatile and as an affordable luxury,” he says.

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