SmgenFisk a Gteborg Sweden-based fish processor believes it has quite a catch in the modified atmosphere packs of its fresh seafood. More than 40 seafood varieties are now merchandised at retail in trays carrying a pressure-sensitive label that reads "Fo/oorsk Fisk" (fresh fish). "Modified atmosphere packaging of fresh fish is a giant step forward in a business like this" asserts Anders Johansson co-owner and marketing director. He says SmgenFisk is the only company in Sweden packing fresh seafood in modified atmosphere though he expects competition in the near future. "Modified atmosphere food packaging has been used for years but rarely in the seafood industry because of costs lack of knowledge and lack of demand" he explains. "People here catch fish themselves or they buy it frozen at the market. Many adults recall bad experiences eating fresh fish as children having to contend with bones and skin. So we're trying to educate them that consuming fresh fish is not only healthy but can be a better experience with our filleted and skinned seafood." The company now packs more than 30 fish varieties plus seven seafood salads and seven herring offerings. The modified atmosphere process produces fish that have an actual 10-day shelf life. This allows retailers to merchandise the product for at least five days. Modified atmosphere packaging provides SmgenFisk "with the difference between success and failure" Johansson states. "If we sold fresh fish without modified atmosphere shelf life would be just four days. Our customers want to display product in the store for five days so the modified atmosphere gives us the time to pack and ship product and still allow the retailer to display the product for five days." All product is packed into trays formed on a Multivac (Kansas City MO) R5100 thermoforming/sealing machine. The Multivac was purchased in 1992 but used on a limited basis until last year when fresh fish sales showed solid gains. "Consumers are becoming more willing to pay an upcharge for fresh fish" Johansson explains. "They are getting used to seeing and buying fresh fish at major retail chains in Sweden. So we expect a boom in sales of fresh fish this year. "We're producing about three times as much modified atmosphere-packed fresh seafood as we did previously. In the last month we added a second Multivac to meet the increased demand" he continues. Fresh fish is retailed under the "SmgenFisk" name which translates to "fishing village." Johansson estimates fresh fish sales in 1996 will account for nearly half of parent company Vo/oosterhausFisk's sales which he says are projected to reach approximately 160 million Swedish Krona ($23.9 million). The privately owned parent firm processes and sells fish primarily to institutional accounts. Meeting the 'boom' To prepare for the anticipated retail sales surge the company constructed a new 2-sq-m plant that opened last June. In February PW visited the new plant. By August "we expect to add two more Multivac machines at the plant" says Johansson. At 30 trays/min speeds the four machines would meet the 120/min speed capability of a pressure-sensitive labeler that SmgenFisk was about to add at press time. The new unit will replace an older machine that operated at speeds to 60/min. Fish is caught along the Kattegat a narrow waterway that leads into the North Sea. The catch is purchased daily then scaled and filleted by Vo/oosterhausFisk. The fillets are ice-packed into corrugated boxes both for foodservice accounts and for shipment to its SmgenFisk retail subsidiary. SmgenFisk marinates or seasons some fish and prepares salad offerings. Ice-packed fish are placed in plastic bins then transferred into a cleanroom environment for packaging. The machine uses two separate webs. The forming sheet is preheated and thermoformed into trays. The lidstock unwinds from an overhead position. A motor-driven gripper chain holds the forming sheet from both sides of the conveyor as the film travels through heating/forming loading evacuation and sealing stations. Scandeflex (Landskrona Sweden) is a primary supplier of the 470-micron (18.5-mil) sheet that includes a 15.75-mil layer of polyester (most are white in color) laminated to a 2.75-mil layer of polyethylene sealant. The forming station includes a top and bottom assembly. The heater is in the top section above the sheet within the forming station. The bottom of the station includes the forming die. Film is preheated as it's forced upwards against the heater by compressed air from below. Pneumatic cylinders lift the tooling upwards to contact the top half of the station. As the sections meet compressed air from the top section blows the heated material downward into the die to take on the shape of the die. Trays are formed three-up along the web with 10 cycles/min producing 30 trays. Many of SmgenFisk's trays are formed with ridges along the bottom within the tray. "These add strength and provide a surface for our operators to insert an absorbent pad prior to loading in fish" says Johansson. After forming operators hand-load the pad and the fish into the trays. "The pads absorb water and blood as is the case with salmon" he adds. Evacuation and sealing Filled trays then cycle into the sealing station. Scandeflex also supplies the lidding film an 85-micron (3.35-mil) laminate of polyester/PE that includes an anti-fog agent. The web unwinds through a series of tension rollers loosely onto the filled trays at a sealing die. When this die closes the air within the package is evacuated by vacuum. Nitrogen and carbon dioxide gas are back-flushed into the package through a side of the die chamber. Gas mixtures are precisely controlled by an electronic system that permits operators to program levels. Johansson did not provide specific mixture levels. "We've upgraded our gas flushing system since we installed the machine" he says. "This modified atmosphere process is obviously critical in providing the shelf life we need to sell the product at retail." After the backflush the two webs are sealed hermetically with heat. Still in a continuous web the formed filled and sealed packs index to two cutting stations. Cross-cutting is done at the first station via a steel-rule cutting process. A hardened steel anvil is pushed against stationary steel rule blades mounted above the material to make this cut. At the second station pneumatically controlled blades cut the trays in the machine or longitudinal direction. The remaining skeletal web is then rewound. Fishing for future Individual trays are conveyed through a wall to a right-angled conveyor that leads to the labeler. The machine applies a small square pressure-sensitive label that typically includes a bar code product name weight and pricing information. The unit may also apply a separate circular p-s label that reads "fresh fish." This label also includes a color image of the specific seafood variety. With its new machine SmgenFisk will label trays twice as fast as it did on a former unit. "We are producing so much fish that we needed to upgrade labeling speed" Johansson points out. Labeled trays are hand-packed into corrugated cases manually palletized then stretch-wrapped. Orders are prepared and trucked overnight to stores or distribution centers. SmgenFisk links customers to its computer system by modem. "They can find out exactly what we have in stock with purchase prices listed for those products" he says. "They make their orders on the computer. Based on this information we can plan our fish purchases." Product weights range from 200 g/tray to 1 kilo (7.05 oz to 2.2 lb) with costs from 25 to 120 Swedish Krona ($3.73 to $17.91) per kilo. To SmgenFisk's delight fresh fish is proving popular. "We've gone from zero sales in 1992 to about 70 million Swedish Krona this year" Johansson notes. "That's a wonderful start. We expect future growth for several reasons. Consumers continue to accept fresh fish. That leads to increased product orders from retailers which have also improved their in-store refrigeration systems. System breakdowns were once a problem for products with limited shelf life." As the fresh seafood market expands Johansson expects to see competitive product packed in modified atmosphere. To counter he says "we expect to introduce new fish varieties in different sizes and with different flavors or seasonings." Johansson expects that these additional products and increased sales volume (including some exports) will justify the costs for the new thermoforming and labeling equipment. "The machinery will enable us to pack product at faster speeds than we can now" he says. "And that will help us get product to the marketplace more quickly. Any advantage we can provide for our customers will help us. After all we have to be ready to face the competition in the market."