Miracle of the fishes: How the food stores change frozen into 'fresh'

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The Independent Online
Fish which is being sold as "fresh" from the wet counters of supermarkets is often up to a fortnight old, according to new research.

Supermarkets are also confusing customers by freezing fish and defrosting it for sale on the fresh counter. The practice of "selling on the defrost" is becoming increasingly common among supermarkets as trawlers from Britain's shrinking fishing fleet spend longer periods at sea to meet the growing public demand for fish.

Shoppers, who pay up to 40 per cent more for fish from the wet counter, are often unaware that the product was previously frozen and have no way of knowing when their "fresh" fish was caught. Some stores said that rivals were failing to label defrosted fish.

The Fish Report, written by Jan Walsh, an independent consumer expert, was commissioned by Iceland Frozen Foods, which believes that fish sold as frozen has an unfair reputation for lack of taste and value. Its findings were "endorsed 100 per cent" at Steve Hatt, a leading fresh fishmonger in Islington, north London. Steve Hatt junior, the shop manager, said his customers were normally eating their fish within three days of it being caught and that the huge supermarket operations could not possibly match the freshness of fish sold in traditional high street fishmongers.

John Wood, senior fish technologist at Marks & Spencer, told the report: "Some people are selling 'on the defrost', which means the fish was frozen but has been defrosted and goes on the counter to be sold as fresh."

Consumer groups said yesterday that many people buying their traditional Good Friday fish were being misled. Tim Lobstein, director of the Food Commission, said: "It's hard to see how fish that has been defrosted is offering additional value over the frozen alternative. I'm not sure shoppers understand exactly what they're being offered in every case. Some supermarkets must be making a huge profit from this practice."

Terry Thresh, owner of the Boyd Line fishing company in Hull, said: "When you see the words 'fresh fish' it's a misnomer. Plenty of trips take 21 days now, if boats go to the Barents Sea, just above Norway. It takes four or five days to get there which means the fish that returns will vary in age but the oldest can be 15 days old. It's kept on ice, just above freezing, and it's completely edible, but it's hardly fresh fish."

When the fish does finally arrive at the quayside the supermarket buyers cannot be sure when the fish was caught. Andrew Pepper, a buyer for Tesco, said: "There is no way of telling the exact age of the fish. We have to trust their word."

Harry Davis, of the government's Central Science Laboratory, called for tougher restrictions at quayside, which currently allow inspectors to ban two-week-old fish from sale.

He said: "I think that's too low and not good for the industry. In my view the inspection limit should be higher so that poor-quality fish is never sold."