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Talking quality, price and service: or how to do the seafood hoki pokey.

Talking Quality, Price and Service: Or How to Do the Seafood Hoki Pokey

"That's what it's all about," ran the refrain to a song about a once-popular party dance, the hokey pokey. But quality and service in addition to price are what it's all about in creating new markets for New Zealand hoki.

Ronald J. Marion, president of Fletcher Seafoods Ltd., Seattle, Wash., U.S.A., told the International Seafood Conference that hoki isn't just a flash in the pan, like orange roughy, but an identifiable whitefish that can fill a niche between cod and pollock.

But it took a while for New Zealand exporters to catch on about how to tap the United States market, Marion said. As late as 1985, one of them was saying the answer was skin-on, fat line-on fillets, simply because that was what his plant happened to make. At that time, most hoki was sold to Japan headed and gutted or as raw material for surimi.

Between 1984 and 1987, however, two New Zealand companies began taking distinct approaches to delivering a quality whitefish to the U.S. market: Sealord with cello wraps, loins, breaded school items, nuggets and other known volume products (Sealord's David Trilling came from the cod industry); and Fletcher Fishing with an IQF full natural fillet.

Supplies of hoki were becoming abundant again, after a crash in 1978 (when the catch plummeted from 100,000 tons to less than 20,000) and the imposition of a 60,000-ton quota. In 1986, the quota was doubled to 120,000 tons; and in 1987, it was increased again, to 250,000 - with actual catches of 100,000 and 170,000 being recorded for those two years.

Meanwhile, cod prices were soaring, from $1.75 a pound in 1986 to $2.15 in 1987. Pollock fillets remained at $1.25 as the price alternative, but a lot of restaurateurs didn't want to admit they were substituting pollock - and just called it "fish." But in 1987, high quality hoki fillets offered an alternative at $1.45 a pound, and low-quality hoki undercut pollock at $1.20.

"The timing was perfect," as Marion put it, for Sealord and Fletcher to get into the U.S. market. Marion himself, previously with Gordon Food Service, joined Fletcher in 1988 as head of its U.S. marketing arm, to develop the niche for boneless, skinless fatline-removed fillets, which were positioned between cod and pollock and identified forthrightly as hoki or blue hake.

Through 1988 and 1989, high quality hoki fillets have held at $1.35 and low-quality at $1.15, vs. $1.55 in 1988 and $1.80 in 1989 for cod and 92-cents and $1.02 for pollock. New Zealand's hoki catch was 211,000 tons in 1988 and perhaps 180,000 last year (estimates differ), while imports to the United States have increased from 900 tons (fillet weight, about a third of green weight) in 1987 to 2,700 tons in 1988 and 6,900 tons last year.

"As in any new product entry, there are problems," Marion said. First, only Sealord and Fletcher have taken the lead in technological advances in handling and processing - other companies are still content to export headed and gutted hoki to Asian countries, which sometimes re-export fillets of doubtful quality to the United States at close to pollock prices. Second, hoki isn't as durable as orange roughy or cod, so maintaining the cold chain is especially critical to quality control.

But hoki has a number of distinct advantages, he stressed:

* A short catch season allows for charters at known costs.

* Twelve-month contracts keep prices stable from year to year.

* Hoki don't have parasite problems, and compare favorably with other species in protein, cholesterol, fat and Omega 3.

* New Zealand's waters are among the purest in the world.

* Sustainable yield of hoki is in the 200,000-250,000 ton range, since the fish are "saturation spawners" and their eggs hatch quickly.

"In the nineties, I believe hoki will be seen in some restaurants and institutions with the name as part of the product," Marion said. "The quality of the portion products now being developed will move hoki into presentations in the best of these institutions and restaurants at very economical price levels. Loins, strips and fillets of hoki will outperform other marketed species like cod, pollock, catfish and whiting." Meanwhile, he predicted, retail prices of $1.99 to $2.59 a pound will create a solid niche for hoki in supermarkets where sticker shock turns consumers off to salmon, black cod, orange roughy and the like.

Sealord Looks for Beachhead

In European Seafood Market

Sealord Products Ltd., Nelson, New Zealand, which claims to be the largest integrated seafood company in Australasia with export sales of more than NZ$ 100 million a year, is poised to make a major advance on the European market, according to Dr. Brian Rhoades, chief executive.

Sealord, with a fleet of six vessels, catches an average of 80,000 tons of fish a year, and processes more than 30,000 at its plant in Nelson. During the 12 months that ended last March, the catch increased 34% to a record 88,580 tons. Among its products are orange roughy, prime fillets of hoki; and cardinal, another moist-fleshed white species.

All three species were promoted by Sealord at the ANUGA show in Cologne, West Germany, last fall. Sealord is also looking for big things in the Japanese market, where Rhoades has appointed a market manager to develop the "significant opportunities" presented by changing tastes and lowering trade barriers.

Sealord has been modernizing its plant. During 1988, it installed a semi-automated processing line using water jets to cut hoki fillets, for example. Several million dollars in all have been spent upgrading plant and equipment. The company also devotes considerable resources to research and development of new products.

Tasmanian Farmed Salmon

Aims for Japanese Taste

The TasAtlantic company in Tasmania is farming salmon for export to Japan. The Atlantic variety under cultivation is preferred by Japanese consumers for its redder pigmentation, so efforts are being made to raise the product accordingly.

TasAtlantic's frozen whole and chilled salmon have been on the Australian market since 1986 under the Shankara label. The packer hopes to replace Australian imports of cold smoked salmon with home-grown products, and to replace canned imports with domestic frozen cutlets and fillets.

PHOTO : Fletcher Seafood's Ronald J. Marion sees competitively-priced hoki earning a solid place in supermarkets before working its way onto foodservice menus.
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Title Annotation:QFFI's Global Seafood Magazine
Publication:Quick Frozen Foods International
Date:Jan 1, 1990
Previous Article:Creeping erosion of public confidence threatening seafood industry growth.
Next Article:Japanese seafood market seen peaking as younger consumers like to eat meat.

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