How your supermarket ‘fresh’ fish can be THREE weeks old: Seafood bought from the big four was only two days away from rotting
- Fish technician tested samples and found a third were close to going off
- ‘Unaccpetable’ products had been on left on ice for more than 10 days
- Fish displayed for seven days deemed to be in the lower limit of acceptability
When I slip a piece of pinkly translucent cod into the foaming butter in my frying pan, I like to imagine that the fish was still swimming around in the chilly sea just hours ago.
Ideally, it would have been hauled out of the water yesterday, or possibly even the small hours of today, put on ice immediately and then whisked with all due dispatch to my fishmonger’s counter.
However, it seems that when it comes to the ‘fresh’ fish sold in supermarkets, my fantasy is, sadly, just that — a fantasy.
Most people would accept that fish can have been out of the water for one, two, maybe three days and still be fresh — but how about fish caught almost three weeks ago? Astonishingly, such fish is being sold as fresh in our supermarkets.
It may not be ‘off’ exactly, or toxic, but it is certainly in the fading twilight of its sellable life.
This week, in order to find out just how fresh the fish we eat actually is, I watched as Michaela Archer, a fish technician with 17 years of experience, used an industry standard testing system, the Torry scale, to assess pieces of cod, plaice and salmon bought from the big four supermarkets and an independent fishmonger.
Of the 12 supermarket samples, a third failed to meet even the minimum level of acceptability of ten days since the fish came out of the water. In other words, they were just a couple of days away from rotting.
Michaela, who works at Seafish, a government body that promotes the fishing industry, said that these four samples provided an ‘unpleasant eating experience’ — a verdict I can confirm.
Another six of the supermarket samples were hovering around the minimum level of acceptability, while only two pieces of the supermarket fish bought were found to score above it.
Michaela said that the results were ‘resoundingly disappointing’.
‘This is a limited assessment of a small number of samples of fish,’ she said
‘However, it provides a snapshot of fish freshness quality. The results show that 66 per cent — all but two of the supermarket samples — were at or below the level of consumer acceptability.’
In contrast, all of the fish from the independent fishmonger was found to be fresh.
The Torry Sensory Assessment Scheme relies on trained technicians evaluating the fish’s physical characteristics. A score of two means fish is rotten while ten is sea-fresh.
The system was developed over 40 years ago at the Torry Research Station in Aberdeen, a government laboratory set up to study food preservation. Scientists there caught their own fish and observed how it deteriorated over time.
There is a different, very detailed, score sheet for each of the popular species of fish, categorising the many characteristics in the odour, taste and texture of cooked and raw fish.
The scale uses dozens of sensory assessment terms to precisely describe the smell.
‘Old boots’ and ‘beery’, for example, are self-explanatory. ‘Tallowy’ indicates the smell of mutton fat.
A fish with a ‘caprylic’ flavour is one that has notes of goats or horses. More depressingly familiar are terms such as ‘rancid’, ‘acrid’ and ‘acidic’. Using the scale, it is possible to assess the number of days on ice a fish has spent — the length of time that it has been out of the water.
The four samples that failed to meet the minimum level of acceptability — Tesco cod, Morrisons cod, Morrisons plaice and Asda plaice — were estimated to have spent between 11 and 16 days on ice, but each sample had two to three days left in its shelf life, according to their labels. If eaten on its use-by date, this fish would have been almost three weeks old.
Any fish that has spent between seven and ten days on ice is deemed to be at the lower limit of acceptability; over ten days and it is deemed unacceptable.
‘Fish is not toxic when it goes off, just horrible to eat,’ says Michaela. ‘Trust me, I know. I have eaten enough of it in this job.’
The worst piece of fish we tried was a cod fillet from Tesco, which scored 4/10.
It was not only soggy and soft, it smelled and tasted of sour milk. Michaela and I pulled faces when we ate it. It seemed remarkable that this fish is actually on sale as ‘fresh’.
Compare this with the best of the cod fillets, which scored 9/10, from the independent High Street fishmonger Moxon’s in South London. The cod’s firm, silky flakes tasted sweetly buttery.
The Food Standards Agency guidelines say that fish may be labelled as fresh if it has ‘been kept chilled on ice, but not stored deep frozen’. Yet these are only guidelines.
There is no legal obligation for retailers to use the Torry Scale to assess fish and catch dates do not need to be shown on labels. Retailers rely on their suppliers to tell them how fresh their products are.
Some independent fishmongers trade on being able to supply this information. After the test I asked Robin Moxon, whose three samples of fish were in the top five in our test, about the catch dates of the fish he sells. (He was unaware his fish had been used in the assessment.)
‘The longest any of the three samples had been out of the water was five days, but we buy fish daily straight from the markets with a view to sell out by the end of the day,’ he said.
When choosing fish, you should look for clear, protruding eyes, a pleasant sea-salty aroma and flesh that is dry and firm to the touch.
Unfortunately, smelling and touching fish is not encouraged at the supermarket counter.
A Tesco spokesman said: ‘We are happy to compare our products against our competitors’ equivalents, but in this case it wasn’t a fair or like-for-like comparison because the test compared counter fish from an independent fishmonger with our pre-packed fresh fish.’
Morrisons, ranked last after the sampling and testing, insists it goes to great efforts to get freshly caught fish into their stores.
A Morrisons spokesman said: ‘We pride ourselves on the quality of our fresh fish and are obviously disappointed by the results.
‘We have our own seafood factory in Grimsby and aim to get fresh fish in and out of our site as quickly as possible, often in as little as 24 hours. Due to seasonality of species, weather and different fishing area management regimes, the length of time between catch and store varies.’
But this only goes to highlight the heart of the problem: when chilled fish for hundreds of stores is processed in a centralised plant before distribution across the country, crucial time is lost.
There is also likely to be over-supply. For consumers unhappy with eating ‘fresh’ fish that just is not fresh, a catch date on labelling is the only solution.
Until then, maybe it’s time to pay a visit to your independent High Street fishmonger — if you’re lucky enough to still have one.
HOW WE TESTED THE FISH
All the fish we tested was bought within a 90-minute period from large London branches of the relevant supermarkets.
All samples were bought from the wet fish counter, with the exception of Tesco, where they were pre-packed. The fish was immediately taken to be cooked to a temperature of 70C in a lidded container in a microwave.
Separate scores out of ten were awarded for odour, flavour and texture. Each sample was then given an overall score in accordance with the industry approved Torry Scale.
A score of seven means it is seven days or more since the fish came out of the water. Less than six means the fish is ten days old; less than five means 13 days old; and less than four means it is 15 days old or more.
Report from Rose Prince for the Daily Mail