The fish finger footprint
Author | Jon Dee
A look at the hidden impacts of food production
How many of us have looked at our plate before beginning a meal and seriously considered the resources that have gone into bringing it to us? The labour and energy in its production? The packaging and transportation to our supermarket? Or the energy taken to prepare it?
A fish finger may seem small and benign but the impact this every-day convenience food has on our environment is immense. It’s also contributed to major problems in the sustainability of fishing industries.
In the UK, cod was traditionally used in fish fingers but as a result of heavy demand cod fisheries collapsed. Indeed, global stocks have declined by 70 per cent in the past 30 years. Many British manufacturers now have to source fish from overseas fisheries to meet their needs.
In Australia the fish used in our fish fingers is Hoki, which comes from New Zealand.
With over 100,000 tonnes of Hoki being caught every year, it’s one of New Zealand’s largest fish exports, worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
A recent reduction in the volume of Hoki caught has helped New Zealand to maintain its stock but the catching of the fish is only the beginning of the fish finger’s life and its disproportionate footprint.
Hoki is a very mild fish. In order to retain its flavour, it has to be frozen as soon as possible after capture. To do this means the diesel-driven trawlers need to have onboard refrigerators to store the catch until they return to dock. Filleting of the fish occurs near the port and as soon as this initial process has been completed the fish is frozen.
From here the Hoki is shipped to Australia where it’s transported to a heavily refrigerated processing plant.
Here our Hoki is cut, crumbed and packaged into cardboard boxes ready for us to buy. It’s packaged not once, but twice. The box we purchase is bundled with dozens of others and packed into large boxes for transportation in refrigerated trucks to supermarket distribution centres.
After the distribution centre, the fish fingers are trucked to individual supermarkets, where they sit in inefficient upright glass-fronted freezers, waiting for us to come along and buy them.
We drive home with our packet of fish fingers and place it straight in our freezer. A few days later we cook a few up on our electric or gas hob for our children’s dinner.
As this video shows, all too often, the fish finger is left on the side, unwanted, until it’s finally tossed into the kitchen bin. When this happens, we’re not just throwing away some leftover food. We’re also throwing away and wasting all the valuable energy and resources that were used in getting the fish fingers on to our plates.
For every step of the way the Hoki has been moved from one refrigerator to another relying on machinery, transportation and electricity to ensure that our fish fingers taste as we’ve come to expect.
For something so small, the environmental footprint is huge.
It’s vital that we take the time to consider the journey that processed food has made before putting it in our shopping baskets. Fish fingers are just one example of any number of processed foods that we typically buy at the supermarket. The better alternative in this instance is locally caught and unpackaged fish. It’s far fresher and its environmental footprint can be significantly less.
Jon Dee is Do Something’s Founder and Managing Director. Having established Do Something! FoodWise in 2008, he’s campaigned to reduce the amount of food Australians send to landfill each year and to build a better, more sustainable food system.