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Hoki sales under threat because of poor quality

By Staff reporters and NZPA

29th May 2003


Quality is a "serious problem" in the hoki industry and fishing companies need to do more to improve it, according to Sealord chief executive Doug McKay.

Unilever, which distributes frozen fish products throughout Europe, has warned that it could turn its back on New Zealand hoki because of quality issues.

The warning was delivered to a Maori Commercial Fisheries Conference in Auckland yesterday by Volker Kuntzsch, German-based buying director of Unilever subsidiary Frozen Fish International.

Mr McKay said Nelson-based Sealord had brought Mr Kuntzsch to New Zealand to help spread the message that more needed to be done.

"No doubt about it, we have a quality problem," Mr McKay said.

He said suppliers were "all in the same hoki boat together" and if one company let the side down, it reflected on everyone.

Sealord is the largest hoki quota holder in the country and employs more than 400 temporary staff during the hoki season.

He said he had made quality his goal at Sealord since joining the company last year.

Unilever buys its hoki exclusively from New Zealand because of its Marine Stewardship Council certification of sustainability.

This year it will buy 3500 tonnes of frozen fillet block, down from 8000 tonnes last year. That was a big chunk of last year's total sales of 18,000 tonnes, earning $89 million.

Mr McKay said a number of suppliers had dropped out but Sealord remained a supplier to Unilever. He would not be drawn on the tonnages of fillet block it was supplying for reasons of commercial sensitivity.

Mr Kuntzsch said the number of bloodshots in the fish - which led to complaints from customers - was continually pushing Unilever's quality standard.

The problem had become so bad that the Netherlands now refused to take New Zealand hoki. Mr Kuntzsch said it would be some years before the Dutch would restock it.

Other species such as Alaska pollock, which is expected to get MSC certification this year, would challenge hoki's place in European markets, he said.

"Germany, the United Kingdom and other countries are saying, `If you don't do something immediately, we won't take your hoki - especially if another sustainable species comes up'."

Hoki Fishery Management Company chief executive Richard Cade said Unilever's comments were a "timely reminder" to the industry to maintain quality.

"If we want to market overseas, we have to have a quality product," he said.

Mr Cade said it was up to individual seafood companies to ensure their export hoki was up to standard. However, the management company would probably look at the quality issue too, since it was the industry's umbrella body.

Some of the larger fishing companies - including Sealord and Sanford - had to increase the quality of their fish, Mr Kuntzsch said.

This could be achieved by not dragging hoki nets for so long, and by hiring good staff.

He said companies should not be afraid to pay more for good staff because it would earn them a return.

While Unilever's discontent was hinted at last year in the Seafood industry magazine, Seafood Industry Council spokesman Simon Thomas said the message had been delivered with more force.