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Op-Ed: Is Frozen Fish the New "Fresh"?

Jon Deutsch and Pete Pearson

July 18, 2017

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We all eat, which means food policy touches individuals from every walk of life, from rural rancher to cubicle dweller and everyone in between. This diversity is part of what makes the food movement so powerful. In our new op-ed series, we’re featuring voices from the culinary community to weigh in and express their personal positions on the food-system issues they’re most passionate about.

Our latest entry comes from Drexel University’s Jonathan Deutsch and Pete Pearson of the World Wildlife Fund. WWF has been collaborating with the Drexel Food Lab to develop recipes that reduce food waste and encourage more sustainable seafood consumption. Below, Deutsch and Pearson share the inspiration behind their “cook-from-frozen” campaign, and its potential to improve the food chain from ship deck to dinner table.

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Pete: “You know how I throw a burger on the grill directly from the freezer?”

Jon: “Uh huh.”

Pete: “Why can’t I do that with a fish fillet?”

That innocent question, asked a year ago over coffee, launched us on a new way of thinking about sustainable seafood marketing.

Pete was curious because the seafood supply chain can be extremely wasteful if not managed properly, and he was looking for ways to help retailers, restaurants, and consumers make the food system more efficient.

Jon, a chef and professor of culinary arts and science, immediately launched into lecture mode. “Well, they would be too dense,” he said, “causing the outside of the fish to cook, while the inside is still frozen…”

Then he caught himself. What would he tell his students if they had asked that question? “Let’s try it,” he said.

Waste is generated at every link in the supply chain, and is especially insidious when it comes to seafood. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, nearly 90 percent of the world’s fisheries are harvested right up to or beyond their biological limits. This means they are, at best, incapable of sustainably yielding more seafood or, at worst, already collapsing. With only 10 percent of the world’s fisheries capable of meeting increased demand for seafood, we have precious few resources to lose.

In the U.S., it’s estimated that loss and waste occurs most often in stores, restaurants, and at home. And a lot of that appears to be linked to consumer psychology.

It can be normal for ten to 20 percent of seafood to expire, spoil, or be damaged at most stores with a “fresh” counter. Consumers want to see abundant displays of beautiful fish. The appearance of artfully arranged fish and a friendly, knowledgeable salesperson promotes an idealized vision of fresh-caught seafood on sale. But at the typical supermarket, even in coastal areas, the items at that “fresh” counter are almost always fish that were previously frozen.

Frozen fish is not a bad thing. Many species are processed and frozen within minutes of hitting the boat’s deck. Freezing the fish helps maintain food safety, preserve nutrients, and reduce spoilage, allowing suppliers to keep costs competitive. But many consumers see frozen fish as inferior to fresh. Supermarkets will often defrost fish and other seafood before displaying it. The product will then sit under bright lights and, depending on the quality of the display case, maybe exposed to warmer air for hours. At the end of the day, fish that has been on display may be rinsed and refrigerated for sale the next day, discarded, or converted to prepared foods. To account for this waste, prices at the seafood counter are higher—and margins are lower—than they are at the frozen seafood case.

If you pick up a package of frozen fish, however, it contains what marketers call a “hurdle” for consumers: thawing instructions. Consumers we spoke with want to prioritize eating more fish but find the planning required makes them prefer fresh. They perceive a need to plan ahead, such as the extra step of moving the fish from the freezer to the refrigerator the night before.

Enter the culinary students of the Drexel Food Lab. Jon, manager Alexandra Zeitz, and a class of culinary, food science, and nutrition students have shown that you can cook directly from the freezer in a variety of ways: baked, simmered, en papillote, sautéed, stir-fried, or grilled. This holds true even when cooking big fish, such as a whole side of salmon. By cooking from frozen, consumers can eat more sustainable and nutritious seafood, and save time and money; retailers can increase their margins; and everyone can conserve our ocean’s vital resources.

We are currently working with ShopRite/Brown’s SuperStores in Philadelphia to sample these recipes in supermarkets and collect consumer feedback regarding how cooking from frozen fits into their lives. We are also working upstream with manufacturers to encourage them to include cook-from-frozen recipes on their packaging and website. With our threatened fisheries, we need to focus on making sure our seafood supply is sustainable. And clearly, reducing waste from fish that is already on the market is the smartest place to start.

Try your hand at cooking from frozen with the Drexel Food Lab’s recipe for cod baked in parchment.

Jonathan Deutsch is the founder and director of the Drexel Food Lab, a student-driven product development and food innovation lab focused on solving real world problems for industry and good food projects. He is also the author and editor of six books, and holds a doctorate from New York University. Learn more at Drexel.edu.

Pete Pearson is the director of food waste at the World Wildlife Fund, working on food waste prevention and recovery and helping businesses to understand the intersection of agriculture and wildlife preservation. Learn more at worldwildlife.org.

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The opinions and viewpoints expressed by the authors in our op-ed series do not necessarily reflect the official position of the James Beard Foundation.