Who needs a traditional fishmonger?

| 1st September 2004
Lying on tilted beds of glistening ice, fish from around the world gaze unblinkingly at bored supermarket shoppers. Red snappers, ‘air freighted for freshness’ from the Indian Ocean; Chilean seabass ‘previously frozen’ from the Southern Atlantic; Farmed salmon from the Isles of Scotland; exotic, seemingly abundant fresh fish.

‘When I walk into a supermarket with a fish counter I can just tell by the smell alone that the fish is not fresh by my standards, and the look only confirms that,’ one experienced fishmonger told me. He explained that fish auctions use various grades for supplies of wild fish, such as haddock, cod and whiting. The fish are graded not by size, but by age: the freshest fish command the highest prices. ‘The supermarkets buy the poorer quality fish, because they consider the best fish is too expensive. The reason why many of their fillets often contain bones is because they like to buy ‘‘block’’ fish; that’s cheaper fish that have been filleted at speed. It’s hard to see why supermarkets buy fish from all over the world to sell fresh when they can’t even sell fish from the UK fresh,’ he remarked.

Rex Goldsmith is an enthusiastic, young fishmonger from Surrey. He gave me an insight into the difference between fish from the independent fish trade and that from supermarkets. ‘I drum into my assistant, ‘‘if you wouldn’t buy it, don’t sell it’’. I always go for quality,’ he told me. On a sunny spring day, the selection on his slab was as vibrantly fresh as the weather: Whitstable oysters, Cornish cod, brill, skate, sole, Scottish mussels, south-coast line-caught sea bass, and west-coast scallops. None of it had been frozen. It was the sort of selection that gives you ideas and inspires you to cook.

By Goldsmith’s standards, supermarket fish slabs are disappointing, even laughable. ‘Supermarket fish is all about price and availability. They are stocking hundreds of fish counters, so they need big, regular supplies, such as little Californian squid that come frozen in one-pound blocks. My fish comes either from Billingsgate [fish market in east London] or from quite local sources. My south-coast sea bass, for example, comes from two guys who go bass fishing with a small boat, and I take all they’ve got. Supermarkets couldn’t be bothered with any supply so small.’

In smaller supermarkets the whole fish category is generally relegated to a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it zone of shelf space. You’ll find fish in pre-packs sealed with ‘modified atmosphere’, under film so tough and so tight that until you get home and pierce it with a sharp knife you won’t have a clue whether the fish is fresh or not. Don’t have high expectations. Fresh fish goes through a dumb period when it is not actively ‘off’ or malodorous but not exactly full of the joys of the sea either. Fish in that state is what you are likely to get when you buy supermarket pre-packs.

You’re likely to have the further frustration of being locked into the retailer’s idea of the typical ‘meal occasion’. Salmon steaks, for example, commonly come in packs of two, designed for the supermarket’s idea of a cosy dîner à deux. So what do you do if there are three or five people for dinner, or you live alone? Feed the surplus to the cat?

In bigger stores with distinct wet-fish counters, where fresh fish is laid out on the slab, supermarkets again seem incapable of delivering those two crucial criteria: freshness and range. The first thing that hits you is a preponderance of farmed fish (salmon, trout) as opposed to wild fish.

Supermarkets say farmed fish is just a response to a shortage of wild stocks, but that is a partial truth. Supermarkets like farmed fish because it can be bought and sold like ball bearings. It is immune to the whims of the sea and so fits in with supermarkets’ centralised, highly automated, nationwide buying systems. It takes only a couple of conversations between a supermarket fish buyer and a Scottish farmed salmon supplier, or a Greek sea bass farmer, to arrange a supply of fish of a standard weight in all stores, at a low price that can be guaranteed for a substantial period of time. By contrast, fleeting, ever-changing supplies of wild fish are a pain in the backside for supermarkets: the catch changes each day; prices and availability fluctuate; supplies of fresh wild fish are inherently local, patchy and highly changeable. Supermarkets’ buying requirements, on the other hand, are national and fixed.

Another common characteristic of supermarket wet-fish counters is that a large proportion of the fish has been defrosted from frozen. Read the small text on the label (it may not be obvious unless you look quite carefully) and you’ll see the words ‘previously frozen’. By buying frozen fish, supermarkets get to have their cake and eat it. They have the ease of buying and transporting fish frozen, without any of the hassle or expense necessarily involved in handling a sensitive product like chilled fresh fish, which to be sold at its best needs as short and direct a supply chain as possible.

Extracted from Shopped: The Shocking Power of British Supermarkets by Joanna Blythman published by Fourth Estate, 2004.


Carefully farmed salmon will have been fed a consistent diet, monitored and harvested at just the right time. Wild salmon fillets on the other hand can be inconsistent in flavour, as one never really knows just what conditions and problems the fish has had to tolerate.’
Sainsbury's website

‘Carefully farmed salmon’ in the Salmon fisheries of Scandinavia release nitrogen in quantities equivalent to that found in the sewage of 3.9 million people; that’s roughly the population of Norway. In 2000 the World Wildlife Fund estimated that Scotland’s salmon farms produced the same amount of nitrogen as the sewage of 3.2 million people; phosphorous deposits were equivalent to the sewage of 9.4 million people; nitrogen and phosphorous can lead to toxic algal blooms.

Researchers based at the University of Albany, New York, warned against eating more than three portions a year of Scottish farmed fish in order to minimise the chances of developing cancer. They had found that the fish contained high levels of contaminants such as PCBs, dioxins and pesticides.

And is the ubiquitous bright pink colour in farmed salmon the product of a consistent diet? No, it’s from pink colourings astaxanthin and canthaxanthin, which are injected into the flesh of the fish.

Marks & Spencer
‘Most wild fish stocks are fished to their limits, so using fish farms helps us meet year round customer demand… We’re now planning to farm other species to further reduce pressure on wild stocks.’
Marks & Spencer website

 To produce one tonne of farmed salmon, takes three to four tonnes of fishmeal, a processed food made from less valuable fish species such as herring, mackerel, anchovy, sardine and other relatively small varieties. So great is the demand for farmed fish that four of the top five fish species caught at sea are used primarily as fishmeal and fish oil for aquaculture and livestock feed. Across the world, 35 per cent of all wild fisheries are used for fishmeal.

Fish expert William Black has criticised UK supermarkets for having staff who do not always appear to be specifically trained to deal with fish and who therefore ‘cannot match the service provided by a high-street fishmonger’. Rex Goldsmith, who used to work for a supermarket before becoming a high-street fishmonger himself, explained to me the consequences of that knowledge deficit.

‘When I worked in the supermarket we used to have an operation manual for fish. It stipulated the species name and a corresponding number of days that it could be kept on the slab. Cod, for example, was the day of delivery plus two more days. But fish is different all the time. Some fish, such as sole or salmon, is better a few days old; others like mackerel you should chuck out at the end of the day if they don’t sell. It depends every day. It’s not like bacon. You have to use your instinct and knowledge. Several times I spoke to the fish buyer about quality, saying that species X or species Y that was coming from a certain supplier was no good. The fish buyers were quite open to this feedback but just didn’t know any better. Usually, they came from cold meats or some other department and had no background in fish.’

 Goldsmith’s comments are confirmed by the following exchanges between customers and staff behind supermarket wet-fish counters.

Q: ‘What’s the best way to cook this [smoked haddock]?’

A: ‘I don’t usually cook fish. My mum does, and she microwaves it.’ (Waitrose, Marlow)

Q: ‘Do you sell fresh (unfrozen) whole squid?’

A: ‘We don’t do fresh but we do have a stock of frozen, which we defrost and sell ready to cook.’ (Safeway, Inverness)

Q: ‘Do you sell bones or trimmings to make a fish stock?’

A: ‘No, we don’t sell any of that. You’d need to go to a fishmonger.’ (Tesco, Eastville, Bristol)

This article first appeared in the Ecologist September 2004



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