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TV chefs slowly broadening UK seafood tastes

But it will always be the land of fish n' chips, seafood expert tells IntraFish.

UK consumers are slowly opening up to new seafood species, partly due to a surge of TV cooking programs, but there is still a lot to do, Matthew Couchman, depot sales manager at fish supplier Southbank Fresh Fish, told IntraFish.

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London-based Southbank has been the exclusive supplier to high-end retailer Selfridges' fish counter since 2014. It also supplies many leading restaurants across London and other high end retailers such as Whole Foods.

“We [the UK] are better than we were 10 years ago in terms of seafood consumption, but we will have to wait to see species such as Australian abalone as a popular dish in the United Kingdom,” Couchman said.

The prestigious supplier -- which has an annual turnover of £10 million (€11.8 million/$12.5 million) -- relies on Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified sources for its supplies to Selfridges and two other clients that require MSC chain of custody.

The company is also selling MSC-certified oysters to Whole Foods.

In total, between 16 percent and 23 percent of its production is MSC-certified, Couchman said, and of that, 80 percent is cod. Of the remaining, around half is farmed.

“For farmed seafood we look at different certifications including Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP) 4 star standards,” Couchman said, but he doesn’t base his entire farmed offering on one single certification due to the low availability of products under each program.

“If I, for instance, bought only Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) certified fish I wouldn’t have anything to sell,” he said.

Switching for farmed

Amongst its products, Southbank offers MSC-certified Tristan lobster from a tiny remote island between South Africa and India, Alaskan certified wild salmon only available for a few months a year and MSC-certified king prawns sourced from a "tiny fishery" in the Spencer Gulf.  

The company stopped selling wild Atlantic salmon and wild sea bass when they lost their sustainable status and has replaced them with farmed products.

In the case of wild sea bass, the company stopped its offering in December 2015, when the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) downgraded the fish to its “avoid” rating. But the farmed version is getting a better customer response, said Couchman.

“Farmed is actually more expensive than wild sea bass, especially larger sizes, but the continuous supply and the consistency in quality are very important factors and farmed sea bass is also more traceable.”

Alaska wild salmon, however, "is one of the finest products", according to Couchman, and "there’s no replacement for it,” but the availability is very limited, and since the MSC doesn’t back any Atlantic wild salmon fishery, the supplier offers sustainable farmed Atlantic salmon all year round.

Sourcing knowledge nabs Southbank lucrative Selfridges contract

In London, seafood demand is fairly consistent throughout the year, with some quiet periods during the holidays, but consumption is generally regular, said Couchman.

He believes Southbank Fresh Fish was selected exclusive supplier to Selfridges' fresh fish counter because of its experience in sustainable seafood, and its ability to sell a wide range of certified products with a good margin.

“We do sell non-certified products to other consumers, but we have great experience and knowledge on sustainable and responsible sourcing, so we can actually answer the questions before they’re even asked,” Couchman said.

Southbank launched its Southbank Sustainability Initiative (SSI) in 2013, aimed at assisting chefs, purchasers and restaurant owners to achieve ethical sourcing, according to Couchman, as a  large number of consumers are still unaware or “simply don’t care about certifications.”

Of course, in the great fish 'n chips nation, cod and haddock make up a large proportion of Southbank's supplies. It sources its cod largely from MSC-certified Icelandic fisheries and to a lesser extent from Norway, and its haddock, mostly from Norway, with a small amount from Iceland.

“Whitefish is always the favorite," said Couchman. "You see consumers start including other species in their diets but there is much more to do before we see a change,” he said. "The UK is still the fish 'n chips country."

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