Care in Handling Reflected by Quality
Salmon quality is the single most important factor in customer satisfaction. Because the quality of the product affects appearance, shelf life and ultimately price, understanding how quality is measured is a key component of providing a high quality product.
salmon grading characteristics that are present when the processor receives the fish fall into two categories: The condition of the fish when it comes out of the water and defects created by the harvest and transport method. These characteristics, along with butcher defects that occur during processing, all contribute the final grade of fish.
While fish are in the water, they encounter any number of animals and environmental factors that can reduce quality. Characteristics that are determined before harvest include cuts, scars, and biological abnormalities.
Cuts are evaluated based on where they are located on the body of the fish, size and depth and how much the cut has healed. Unhealed cuts are graded lower than cuts that may appear red, but have healed over.
Scars differ from healed cuts in that a scar no longer has a red, raw appearance. Scars are evaluated by the effect on the appearance of the fish and the amount of damage done to the body of the fish. Size and depth are the two biggest factors.
Biological abnormalities are any changes to the fish internally or externally. These include tumors, growths and unexplained discolorations. These abnormalities are not found with enough frequency to break them down into other categories. They usually affect the internal organs, however, the whole fish is usually discarded due to lack of information on the growth and how it might impact the flesh of the fish.
Harvest methods differ in the kind of damage they inflict on the fish. Characteristics affected by harvest method include net marks, scale loss, pressure marks and bruising. Chilling after harvest and during transportation minimizes defects caused by temperature abuse. These include belly burn, softness, odor and gaping.
Net marks are found on salmon caught in gill nets. Net marks can range in damage from a thin dark line and missing scales to broken backbones and severely dented fish.
Scale Loss can be caused by a number of actions, friction from the net, rough handling and improper slush ice techniques.
Pressure marks are dark red bruises that appear on the surface of the skin when fish are compressed in heavy brailer bags or at the bottom of a layer iced hold.
Bruising is an interior defect that is only noticeable in the belly cavity of an H&G fish or in a fillet. It is caused by blood leaching into the meat when the fish hits hard surfaces. Bruising is often unnoticeable in an H&G fish. Live bled fish will have considerably less bruising than a non-bled fish.
Belly Burn is a dark red staining in the lining of the belly cavity. It is often accompanied by an off odor. Belly burn occurs when a fish experiences temperature abuse significant enough to cause the organs to begin decomposition before they are removed.
Softness occurs naturally as flesh goes through the decomposition cycle. The onset of softness is sped up with higher temperatures. Softness is determined by pressing two fingers into the side of the fish and evaluating how long it takes the fingerprints to no longer be visible.
Odor of a fish fresh from the water is considered “sea fresh.” As the fish goes through decomposition the odor changes and develops a “fishier” smell. Another odor associated with salmon is called “feeder” smell. This is the odor that is found in the belly cavity of salmon that are still in the feeding part of their life cycle. It is frequently compared to the scent of over ripe fruit or sickly sweet.
Gaping is evaluated after a fish has been filleted. Gaping is usually the result of muscle fibers tearing as the fish progresses through stages of rigor mortis. Rigor mortis is the chemically occurring stiffening of muscle fibers after death and can be controlled through temperature. Lower temperatures slow the process. Fish that go through rigor rapidly experience more significant tearing of the muscle fibers. Fish should not be handled while they are in active rigor mortis. For the highest quality, fish should be frozen or chilled to 32 degrees before they enter rigor.
Handling fish gently through harvest and transportation, paired with chilling as quickly as possible are the two single things that have the greatest impact on the quality of a finished product. Market shifts in the last decade have resulted in more finished salmon products being sold to the consumer. Defects undetectable in H&G fish move to the forefront in fillets and portions at a retail counter. These problems have to be addressed at harvest in order to raise the quality bar.
Brandii (O’Reagan) Holmdahl is a Quality Operations Manager with Icicle seafood. Over the last 24 years she has worked in the seafood quality assurance field in every major region in Alaska, handling most species of seafood harvested in Alaska at the foreman and plant manager level. She has also served on the quality sub-committee of the salmon Legislative Task Force, developed training and branding programs throughout Alaska and operated an independent dock for fishermen wanting to retain and sell their own catch.