The facts of fish fingers

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HARRY PICKERING, of Cormorant Drive, Grimsby, emerged as an unlikely protagonist in the troubled history of Anglo-German relations this weekend.

Angry exchanges followed his revelation that Marks & Spencer had snubbed the Great British fish finger in favour of the German equivalent, Fischstabchen, from Schottke of Bremerhaven.

Mr Pickering, a retired accountant, found the offending product in his local M&S. Outraged, he wrote to the company and his local paper. By Thursday morning it had become a minor row, with the town's Labour MP, Austin Mitchell, calling for a boycott of the food.

The whole notion that the fish finger is British is, however, a misconception. They were brought here in 1955 by Clarence Birdseye, an American scientist, who discovered 'fish sticks' in his home country.

Mr Birdseye spotted a gap in the British market for a product cheap and convenient enough to make a family meal, yet interesting enough to appeal to a country bored with rationing. The pioneers dabbled with names and materials, switching from herring to cod and changing the name from herring savoury to fish finger for the British launch.

Since then, the basic finger has barely changed. The chief ingredient is cod, but the grade varies from the 'premium' stocked by M&S to 'economy', packed with lesser cod and fish slurry. Few preservatives are used: M&S says only paprika colours its crumb coating.

Britain is now the biggest producer, with sales of pounds 110m - approximately 350 million fish fingers - each year.

The job of marketing the fish finger was assigned in 1967 to the old sea-dog Captain Birdseye. So identifiable was he with the product, that when the company wanted to change its advertising campaign in 1971, it placed a notice in The Times announcing his death. It realised its mistake, however, and resurrected him three years later - again with an announcement in The Times.

M&S was clearly annoyed at what it called a 'silly season' newspaper story. It pointed out that it had struck a deal with Schottke 10 years ago, when Germany alone had the technology to freeze cod quickly after the catch. British firms have since caught up but M&S never drops a supplier unless its quality falters. Tesco has a similar deal with Schottke.

The fish themselves all come from the same place, the North Atlantic, and therefore have no nationality until they become fish fingers.

(Photograph omitted)

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