By Hook and Cooke
By Andrew Snook
Leading seafood processor leverages high-performance packaging technologies to ride the healthy eating wave
The Cooke family of companies is a global leader in the seafood industry that started with humble roots nearly 40 years ago.
The company was established in 1985 as Cooke Aquaculture under the Kelly Cove Salmon brand by Gifford, Michael and Glenn Cooke. Back then, it was comprised of a single marine cage site containing 5,000 salmon in Kelly Cove, N.B.
But over the years the company expanded aggressively, acquiring small and large hatcheries and fish farms around the globe, as well as various seafood producers.
Fast-forward to present day and the Cooke family of companies comprises a vast network of global aquaculture businesses.
This includes its wholly owned subsidiaries Cooke Aquaculture Inc. and Kelly Cove Salmon Ltd., as well as seafood and wild fishery divisions such as Cooke Seafood USA, Inc., Wanchese Fish Company, Inc., Omega Protein Corporation, Cooke Uruguay S.A. and Seajoy Seafood Corporation, one of the largest premium shrimp farms in Latin America.
All in all, the company today employs a loyal workforce of approximately 10,000 people with operations in Canada, the U.S., Scotland, France, Spain, the Netherlands, Chile, Uruguay, Argentina, Honduras, Nicaragua and Japan.
The Cooke family of companies ships one billion pounds of sustainable products annually.
Wild species like wild salmon, whitefish and shellfish account for about 30 per cent of its annual catch. The remainder is supplied by farmed species such as Atlantic salmon, steelhead trout, white Pacific shrimp, sea bass and sea bream.
Popular with Canadian fish and seafood lovers from coast to coast, the company’s premium brand True North Seafood remains its signature product offering, with salmon being the top-selling product.
“Our Atlantic Salmon is sold under the True North Seafood brand and processed in New Brunswick into fresh, frozen and value-added formats such as whole fish, fillets, portions, skewers and seasoned portions—all depending on customer needs,” says s Jill Cronk, vice-president of marketing for True North Seafood.
“Consumers can purchase our Atlantic salmon at the fresh counter in many major retailers across Canada,” Cronk told Canadian Packaging recently. “We are the only North American salmon producer with fully integrated four-star BAP certification.
“We’re proud of the fact that we don’t take shortcuts,” Cronk states, “and we’re confident our customers can always taste the difference.”
Over the past decade, sweeping changes and new trends in the consumer markets have had a major impact on how the company does its business.
According to Cronk, one of the key trends in consumer consumption behaviours is an increased demand for value-added product offerings.
“There is a need for convenient, ready-to-cook seafood that makes cooking at home easier and less intimidating for consumers.
“Our value-add products such as seasoned portions and salmon burgers have helped address this need,” Cronk says, citing rapid growth in e-commerce as another major market trend driving the industry’s packaging strategies.
“With more and more consumers shopping online, there was a need to increase the accessibility of our seafood products, while maintaining product integrity throughout transit using durable, quality packaging,” Cronk says.
“Our True North Seafood online store launched in 2020 in response to the shift in consumer shopping behaviors.”
As Cronk explains, having quality packaging plays a significant role when selling fresh Atlantic salmon, through any channel.
“High-performing packaging that maintains product integrity throughout transportation is important,” Cronk says.
“As part of our solution to create a sustainable future we are constantly moving towards placing more products in recyclable packaging materials,” says Cooke, adding the company is currently testing new technology to enable installation of fully-automated in-house packaging lines.
As Cooke expanded its seafood operations and offerings over the years, the demand for packaging equipment for its new frozen line of fillets produced at the company’s 41,000-square-foot facility in New Brunswick increased dramatically.
“In 2021 we cut 32 million pounds of salmon on our fillet lines at that facility,” says Letsie Blackmore, True North’s director of processing management.
“We sell skin-on fillet, skinless fillets, portions and steaks: we do all those processes there.”
To keep up with growing volumes and demand, the company is currently in the process of building a new 57,000-square-foot facility dedicated to processing fillets, Blackmore relates.
“When we move into the new facility, it will enable us to double production to cut between 60 to 65 million pounds,” says Blackmore.
Such big production volumes naturally require superior packaging line performance and efficiencies as core competencies, and True North Seafood facilities have been able to achieve many of its packaging goals by working with packaging line experts at Harpak-ULMA Packaging LLC of Taunton, Ma.
Dave Favret, product manager, TFS, at Harpak-ULMA Packaging, says the company has been a packaging partner for Cooke’s operations for the past six years.
“We started off with selling them an entry-level medium-range TFS 300 thermoforming machine designed to run a number of different types of products—flexible vacuum-packs, MAP packaging, and the capability to do vacuum skin-packs with one machine,” he says.
In addition to the TFS 300, Harpak-ULMA Packaging also sold Cooke a Mondini tray-sealing machine for making vacuum skin-pack packs in trays.
“These were two machine purchases for doing different applications,” Favret says.
As Cooke continued to grow, it found itself in need of more vacuum skin-pack for their fresh fish products,turning to Harpak-ULMA to purchase a TFS 407 standard skin thermoformer, which was dedicated to vacuum skin-pack of fresh salmon.
In 2020, Cooke Aquaculture decided it needed another vacuum-pack machine for frozen fish, proceeding to purchase a TFS 600 hygienic-design thermoformer.
“They needed one pretty quickly and we happened to have one in our inventory,” Favret recalls. “It’s a large machine with multiple pack format for vacuum-pack, flexible film type applications.
“It’s a big tool,” Favret says. “This machine has a 600-mm advance so it can do large format.”
More recently, Cooke needed to boost its capacity at a different facility, but it felt it did not require a machine as large as the TFS 600 system.
“We started with renting them a TFS 300 thermoformer. Then they needed more capacity and rented another TFS 300,” Favret says.
“With the relationship we have, and since we had the machines available, we took a chance that they’d end up buying the machines—one new machine and one slightly used machine.
“They ended up buying them both for frozen fish packaging in different facilities.”
Favret says versatility is a key feature for his company’s TFS 300 thermoforming machines.
“It offers the flexibility to change to different formats; its is easy to change from one format package size to another; and they are always available in our inventory,” Favret says.
“We have different types of machines for the seafood market that addresses their needs,” Favret relates.
“Our machines are well-designed and well-built for longevity,” he adds, “and they are easy to operate.”
Favret says the operator can change from one format pack size to another without using any hand tools.
For her part, Blackmore says the addition of the Harpak-ULMA Packaging machines has been a huge boost to productivity at their processing facilities.
“The new blast freezer and our ULMA machines went hand-in-hand,” she says. “It was a game-changer for us because we had started to get into a little bit of freezing, and we didn’t have the equipment to do it properly.
“The addition of the TFS 600 and TFS 300 and blast freezer made that process so much more efficient,” she relates, “and it really improved the ability for extending the shelf-life of our products going into the blast freezer.”
“The installation of the filleting machines and trimming machines was another big improvement,” Blackmore says.
“In any production environment, yield is one of your most important KPIs (key performance indicators),” Blackmore states. “ These machines helped us maintain or improve our volumes, while ensuring TFS 407 standard skin thermoformer will achieve the best yields possible all day long.”
The TFS 300 thermoforming machine is constructed with stainless steel and features an IPC control system, operational diagnostics, displayed parameters and error messages, CE approval, and a hygienic IP-65 design.
Requiring minimal maintenance, the unit offers programmable configurations, programmable advance speed, and a toolless detachable infeed.
“A lot of the features that are standard on our equipment are not standard on many of our competitors’ machines,” Favret notes.
Optional devices for the TFS 300 include an upper and lower printed film centring; expanded loading area; vacuum and gas flush systems; an integrable vacuum pump, special adaptations for clean rooms, special components for very corrosive products, integration with peripheral equipment like date-coders, dossing systems); and inline application of reclosable zipper attachments and other easy-open options.
The process for creating the frozen fillets begins with fish brought into the facility in 1,200-pound tubs filled with an ice-slurry mixture.
“We’ll receive fish overnight and start the VA process by deciding whether to scale the fish or not, depending on customer orders,” Blackmore says. “If scaling is required, it first goes through our scaling machine.”
All fish weigh more than 10 pounds are transferred to a beheading machine, while smaller fish are beheaded manually.
“Depending on the volume, we have anywhere from four to six people on that table with knives manually cutting the heads,” Blackmore says.
From there, the fish are sent through the high-speed filleting machines manufactured by renowned German manufacturer BAADER.
“The fish go through the machine, where an operator will sit the headless fish on a saddle, and then two different sets of blades remove the fillets from the frame of the salmon,” Blackmore explains.
“Once the fillets come out of the filleting machine, they will then go into a trimming machine, which was also purchased from BAADER.”
That trimming machine is pre-programmed for each spec of fillets ordered by their customers, leaving the operator to simply selects the type of trim and size of fillets.
When the fillets come out of that machine, they move to conveyors on each side with two to four additional trimmers that trim anything the machine didn’t catch.
When the fillets leave that station, they are conveyed onto the pin boning machine, another piece of BAADER equipment.
“On that machine there are little roller assemblies that are continuously moving. As the fish are coming off the belt, they are catching the pin bones to pull them out of the fillet,” Blackmore says.
“Due to our fish being so fresh when processed, pulling all of the bones by the machine isn’t possible because the fillet is still very firm. “Many companies hold the fish in the slurry mixture up to 48 hours before cutting to make this process easier,” she says, “but we want our fish to the customer as fresh as possible.”
When the fillet leaves the pin boning line it goes to a grading area and is graded for quality as either a premium fillet or a select fillet (something with a lighter colour, offcut, a poor cut or a bruise).
“That fillet grader is pre-programmed so we can send the fillets to different gates and/or lines, after which they go to a skinless line or packed into a box,” Blackmore says. “If it is being packed as a skin on fillet it will be sent to that line to be packed inside a Styrofoam container or a corrugated box, weighed and labeled.
“All boxes are taped-closed and directed through a metal detector,” she adds.
For the packaging of the fillets, the company works with a lot of local suppliers, including Master Packaging in Dieppe and Thermalite, N.B.
“We produce a lot of our own Styrofoam and also work with Thermalite for any additional needs,” says Blackmore, adding that True North is implementing a major shift to using more paper-based packaging for its value-added products—coming to the grocer near you soon.