Fish and seafood processing and packaging is a valued industry in America. Many types of seafood products are available in the U.S., from shellfish captured in the ocean to freshwater fish from lakes. After fish is caught, it must be processed and packaged to reach consumers as an edible product.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Americans spent an estimated $102 billion for fishery products in 2017. Important species include salmon, halibut, tuna, lobster, shrimp, scallops, clams, crab, herring and oysters. Without the fish processing sector, many Americans wouldn't have access to the seafood products they regularly enjoy. Processing is necessary to keep fish fresh long enough to reach the shelves in stores, restaurants and homes.
Fish processing involves preparing fish and seafood for delivery to consumers. Once fish is harvested, it must undergo several steps before it's ready to be sold in the market. The process includes gutting, filleting and packaging of the product. Fish is a highly perishable food, so it must be carefully handled from the moment it's caught until it's sealed in packaging material. Proper, efficient processing and packaging prevent deterioration and ensure a quality product.
Fish processing generally involves the following steps:
ㆍLoading fish into a machine to remove heads
ㆍMoving fish to a cleaning machine to remove tails, scales and entrails
Fish processing may be done manually or by the use of processing machines. The details of the process can vary greatly depending on a company's size and the fish species they handle.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), freshwater fish are often manually processed, with employees using a wide variety of knives. Workers must be highly skilled to manually process fish efficiently and safely. In general, manual processing is more common in small processing plants.
Large plants require automated systems to yield abundant quantities quickly. Here's a look at the different steps for both manual and automatic processes:
ㆍSorting and grading: Sorting fresh fish to classify species and check for damage and freshness is often a manual process. Grading fish size, on the other hand, is easily accomplished with machinery. Machine graders accurately and quickly sort fish. According to the FAO, automated grading is up to 10 times more efficient than manual grading. However, small plants often do not use automatic graders due to the cost of the machinery.
ㆍScaling: Scaling is another step that may be done manually, but it's one of the hardest tasks because scales can be difficult to remove. Workers may scale fish using a hard brush or blade. Fish that are to be skinned or smoked do not need to be scaled. Some processing plants equip workers with electric handheld scalers. Electric scalers accelerate and simplify the process.
Fish Cutting Belly and Descaling Machine
ㆍDe-heading: Freshwater fish may be de-headed manually. Usually, saltwater fish are de-headed on a machine. Manually de-heading large fish requires too much effort, and an automated de-heading machine must be used. De-heading machines typically use band saw blades, cylindrical knives or guillotine cutters.
ㆍGutting: The gutting of freshwater fish is also often done manually and is very labor-intensive. It includes cutting down the belly of the fish and removing the organs. A vacuum suction tool may be used to remove the entrails. Plants might utilize gutting machines to process certain species. Some machines provide an all-in-one solution and are capable of de-heading, cutting and removing the insides.
ㆍFin removal: Manual fin removal is a difficult process, particularly for large fish. An automated device made up of rotating disc knives accelerates the process.
Slicing: Slicing fish into steaks is often done with a band saw. Large fish require mechanical slicing. There are many different types of slicing machines, such as ones that use several rotating circular knives. According to the FAO, a mechanical cutter can slice up to 40 fish a minute.
ㆍFilleting and skinning: Plants might have a filleting machine that uses a rotating disc knife and conveyor belt to speed up the process. An automated tool for skinning consists of an oscillating knife powered by a small electric motor.
One of the top concerns in the fish processing and packaging industry is spoilage. Fish quickly deteriorates, so steps must be taken immediately to extend shelf life. The process includes:
ㆍTemperature control: Reducing the temperature to 32 degrees Fahrenheit slows down decomposition. Raw fish must be chilled in ice immediately after harvesting and be kept cool during the trip to the processing plant as well as throughout processing and distribution. Freezing is required to extend shelf life for a long time.
ㆍMoisture control: Drying, salting and smoking reduces water content and makes a fish product suitable for consumption. Salting is a traditional method that's often combined with drying and smoking. It's also a low-cost way to preserve fish.
ㆍOxygen control: Fish may be vacuum-sealed to increase shelf life. Vacuum packaging deprives the fish product of oxygen, which prevents oxidation reactions and slows down spoilage.
ㆍMicrobial growth control: A processing plant might apply heat or increase acidity to kill bacteria and slow decomposition in fish products.
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