Pigmenting Farmed Fish: Are We Colour Blind?
Richard D. Moccia
AEC Pub. May 1993

One of the fun things about my job is that I often get to have lunch with a fish farmer. Usually, we eventually get around to debating ways of reducing the unit cost of production for fish, and predictably bemoan the high cost of fish feed. We all know that feed accounts for a large share of the cost of raising fish (from 30-50%), and if it weren't for the fact that fish have the highest feed efficiency of any domestic animal around, there would be little hope of making money in trout or salmon aquaculture. Recently, a farmer chastised me for all the money scientists spend on fish nutrition work, and rightly asked, "Why, after millions of dollars of nutrition research, can't we make a fish feed cheaper than T-bone steak?". I explained that all of that research has in fact, kept the price of fish feed down without sacrificing quality, however, that is a tough statement for any farmer to accept when they are paying $800-1,400 a tonne for feed. I went on to explain that a significant research investment is necessary to produce relatively small reductions in feed costs, and experiments that lead to $20 or $30 savings a tonne are considered a big deal.

I later got to thinking about what it would take to really bring the cost of feed down, say 15-20%. Just think about what that would do to the bottom line of most businesses.

One easy way to significantly reduce feed costs would be to just get rid of that artificial pigment that many of us use in fish feed. I know I'll be called a heretic (again!) for such a statement, but think about it. Most trout and salmon feeds around the world have synthetic carotenoid pigments added for one purpose only - to colour-up the edible flesh. Make it look nice and pink or red so the consumer will think it's really pretty and pay more money for it. After all, lots of other foods are coloured for purely aesthetic purposes. What's the big deal?

Firstly, these pigments add an unbelievable 15% or more to the price of feed, and they do essentially nothing for the fish other than change the colour of the muscle and skin. Even bulk trout feed that runs around $900+ a tonne, usually has at least $150 of pigment in it. So it's really an expensive practice. And although carotenoids are precursors to Vitamin A, and are required for a number of metabolic processes, fish get more than enough of these compounds in the base feed formula, and it isn't necessary to add extra as synthetic analogues. So it isn't nutritionally necessary. Most consumers aren't aware that we do this to fish, and would very likely react negatively to the products of aquaculture if they knew we did. So it isn't because the consumers really want the pigment. They like the colour of the fish, but at what cost? For years, we have tried to tell everyone that aquaculture produces pure, clean, unadulterated fish products that can compete with the best quality wild-harvested seafood. But we have not really been forthright about our pigmentation practices, because we knew in our hearts that consumers would not like it. So we sort of marketed half-truths.

There is little doubt that the pigments astaxanthin and canthaxanthin, which are the typical additives to fish feed, are perfectly safe for human consumption. But in an age where the average buyer of food is highly educated, and is looking for products that don't have any unnecessary additives, why are we vigorously pursuing this practice?

So why do we pigment fish? There is no doubt that in some marketplaces for trout, and all places for salmon, you get more money by selling a pigmented product and you can't sell a white flesh salmon or trout. A white, farmed-salmon is almost inconceivable - isn't it? And there is also no doubt that it was easier initially to sell a pigmented farmed-fish, because it looked more like it's wild counterpart that the consumer was familiar with. So there was a little bit of trickery involved a long time ago by the fish farming pioneers.

But what price are we prepared to pay for this marketing logic? It isn't just the price of feed that it will cost us. How will we measure the long-term impact on consumer confidence in our industry that this practice might create?

It seems to me that it's time we hire some marketing folks to dream up good ways to promote and sell non-pigmented farmed-fish. And we should think very carefully about pigmenting any new farmed-fish species - like Arctic Charr - before we have the product recognized as a pigmented fish. Few consumers know whether Charr are supposed to be white or pink or red, so they won't be surprised if we sell it 'Artificial Pigment Free'. Maybe it's better to start selling Charr white- fleshed, so that we don't need to shift the products' identity in midstream. Also, our fish could be easily distinguished from the wild product which should be an asset, and 'white' fish could be used to promote a more wholesome image, which the consumer may pay more money for in the end. After all, the large share of seafood products are white fleshed anyway. The fish wouldn't look so different after it was cooked either, which is good. Feed companies wouldn't have to inventory so many different types of feed which should reduce their handling costs. Farmers could forget about all the factors which affect pigment uptake and colour intensity. There would be far fewer problems with colour variation at the processing plant (and subsequent downgrading of the lighter product's price), because all the fish would be a consistent white colour. Overall, the cost of production would immediately go down a significant percentage, which is a desirable result. The 'real' market for farmed fish in my opinion, is with the masses of non-fish eaters out there who will eventually see the light and make seafood a regular component in their dietary rotation. These are the people we need to survey when making decisions about whether or not to pigment a new farmed product like Charr. A recent test marketing of Charr in Ontario showed NO difference in price between the pigmented and non-pigmented varieties. Maybe we are really fooling ourselves about this apparently value added approach to selling fish like the Arctic Charr.

My advise to Charr farmers is, "Don't Pigment", especially during the early stages of bringing this new species to the marketplace. Once started, it will be impossible to turn back consumers who identify Charr with pink/red colouration, and I think we will be forever sorry that we tied ourselves to this pointless and expensive technology.

Just a few ideas to ponder. What do you think?
University of Guelph
50 Stone Road East
Guelph, Ontario, N1G 2W1