Fresher is always better.
That belief is an article of faith in a seafood world that has been boasting of “catch of the day” and “fresh-from-the-boat” since ancient times.
But a growing community of activists, chefs, and entrepreneurs are challenging that assumption, arguing that at a time when nearly half of America’s edible seafood supply is wasted, fresher is not better.
There’s a problem with your supermarket’s fresh seafood counter, explained Pete Pearson, who leads the World Wildlife Fund’s food waste prevention programs. That tempting display of fresh cod, salmon and trout, bedded artfully on ice, is time sensitive. Fresh fish typically has two days in a grocer’s seafood counter before it gets thrown out.
Pearson says that the perception that “fresher is better” is a big reason why most store managers he’s talked to say it’s “normal” to accept that between 10 to 20 percent of their seafood will be lost – either because it’s damaged, expired, or spoiled.
But Pearson and others argue there’s a way to solve the massive waste problem: go frozen.
Instead of a shelf-life of days, frozen seafood can be safely stored for weeks or months. What’s more getting consumers to choose frozen would offer them more affordable, healthy protein (just think about the millions of pounds of protein lost each year because it expired). And for the World Wildlife Fund, Pearson says, supporting a shift to frozen seafood is a natural extension of its mission — eliminating seafood waste to reduce pressure on endangered fisheries.
To address the waste problem, WWF partnered with Jonathan Deutsch of Drexel University’s Food Lab on a research project to develop strategies to persuade retailers and consumers to embrace frozen seafood.
WWF isn’t the first to pitch frozen as the sustainable seafood choice; the Alaska Longline Seafood Association kicked off its “eat frozen” campaign in 2009, and the food journalist Paul Greenberg has been touting “frozen” wild salmon as a sustainable choice for years.
But more recently, some entrepreneurs have taken a new approach to frozen seafood, trying to lure consumers with not just a sustainability message but also by touting the superior quality of frozen.
Perhaps the best-known example of the “gourmet frozen” movement is Love the Wild. The Boulder-based company, which has received support from actor and aquaculture supporter Leonardo DiCaprio, only sources fish from farms renowned for responsible practices and only sells frozen fish. Love the Wild’s frozen offerings — like frozen red trout with salsa verde and frozen barramundi paired with sriracha — are meal kits with easy-to-follow instructions that are priced at a premium (LTW sells its 5.33 ounce salmon kit online for $6.99; Whole Foods has fresh Atlantic salmon at $9.99, as of this post). Love the Wild, which pitches its frozen seafood kits as not only the environmentally responsible choice but also as good as fresh, has grown rapidly. According to a story in Inc, you can get its products in more than 2,700 stores, including Safeway and Whole Foods.
Another pioneer of high-end frozen fish is Chicago’s Wixter Market. The boutique shop in the city’s Wicker Park neighborhood sells an impressive range of seafood (scallops, Chilean sea bass, Mahi Mahi) from across the globe, but nothing is “fresh.” Started by seafood industry veteran, Matt Mixter in 2015, Wixter boasts that its frozen seafood is “better than the fresh product” and guarantees a shelf-life of 12 months.
Both Wixter and Love the Wild argue that today’s frozen seafood is wildly unlike your father’s frozen seafood because of emerging technologies.
Love the Wild’s co-founder Jaqueline Claudia credits blast freezing, which allows farms to freeze fish at the peak of their quality. In an interview with Inc., Claudia said blast freezing drops the fish’s temperature to minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit in about a minute, causing less damage to cell membranes and preserving texture.
Wixter touts an even more extreme process. With “super-freezing,” fish are frozen, at minus-seventy-six degrees Fahrenheit, sometimes hours, or even minutes after harvest. Wixter’s website claims this super freeze — which stops all decomposition in fish, increases shelf life and preserves flavor — is why a frozen product is better than a “fresh” product that may have been in transit for days or even weeks.
One prominent believer in the frozen revolution is chef and sustainable seafood advocate Barton Seaver, who admits in a recent video that he used to “shun frozen fish because it wasn’t any good.” But Seaver credits deep-freezing technologies like blast and super-freeze for turning frozen products into a way to capture pristine quality.
A 2017 survey pitting frozen versus fresh cod found that, if properly frozen and thawed, frozen cod was as good as fresh. The WWF-Drexel project also found that, with basic training on “cook from frozen” techniques, home-prepared frozen seafood was on par with the quality of fresh for most consumers.
But despite the revolution in frozen technology and encouraging feedback in consumer testing, WWF’s Pearson said he’s seen no change in the seafood counter at major grocery retailers.
Grocery retailers could see many benefits from a move to frozen, Pearson said. The WWF-Drexel project “Eliminating Seafood Waste” found cost-saving opportunities that reduce labor costs, the footprint of the seafood section and “shrink” (industry grocer-speak for the loss associated with waste). “Grocers want “zero shrink” in every department in the store,” Pearson said, “But how you do that without impacting the customer and the customer experience.”
Although the fresh seafood display at retailers is often a myth — the shrimp you buy, for instance, is most often pulled out of the frozen case and thawed to appear fresh — that section of the store, with its tempting display of salmon, scallops and halibut, is something grocery retailers use to attract people and shape the experience. “The fear is that if you have frozen filets, people are not going to register that as of high quality,” Pearson said. “That’s just not how are brains are wired. We have to go out and systematically get people to think differently about what fresh really means.”
Pearson notes that vacuum-sealed packaging that puts the frozen product on display is a step forward for frozen marketing.
One reason proponents of frozen seafood are optimistic is because of what’s taking place on the other side of the Atlantic. Picard, a popular food retailer in food-obsessed France, doesn’t have a fresh seafood counter. They only sell frozen. “Picard has a tremendous reputation,” Pearson said. (It was rated France’s favorite brand in 2014.) “That shows that frozen has nothing to do with quality. In fact, frozen may be a marker some day of better quality.”
But perhaps the most encouraging sign for the frozen seafood movement is a far broader trend.
Two years ago, the Spoon’s Catherine Lamb posed the question “Are We Entering A Frozen Food Renaissance,” after a report from RBC Capital markets found frozen food volume growth turned positive for the first time in five years.
Lamb reported that the frozen renaissance was driven, in part, by companies like plant-based frozen meal maker Zoni Foods and gourmet frozen maker Eat Local that are reversing the long-held frozen food stigma by offering high-quality, healthy frozen meals. Even more recently, the Spoon reported on an NPD study that highlighted more growth and innovation in the frozen section, and offered a reason for the renaissance: time-starved millennials entering the busiest phase of their lives are hungry for convenience.
Leave the Wild, with its frozen-only seafood meal kits, and Wixter, Chicago’s frozen-or-bust seafood shop, are rarities today. But given the outrageous amount of fresh seafood that goes to waste and the changing needs of millennials, these pioneers may signal the beginning of a frozen seafood renaissance.