Q&A: ICTs and the post-harvest fishing industry
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CTA. 2004. Q&A: ICTs and the post-harvest fishing industry. ICT Update Issue 16. CTA, Wageningen, The Netherlands
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How are ICTs being used to support post-harvest fishing activities? Venu Pidachy explains how, in order to comply with strict international food safety and quality regulations, the Ugandan Nile perch exporter Marine Products Ltd is using methods originall
What is the focus of attention in the post-harvest fishing industry? Like other branches of the food sector, the post-harvest fishing industry depends on providing products that are both safe and which meet consumers´ increasing demands for quality. As fish exporters, we have a particularly difficult job because fish are extremely susceptible to contamination. They are exposed to everything from pathogens and allergens to heavy metals, parasites and toxins, so the potential health hazards for fish consumers are legion. What´s more, fish are highly perishable. Especially in hot climates, significant quality losses can occur very soon after the fish are caught. What is needed, then, is a control mechanism that takes in both these factors right through the entire fish processing supply chain, from the moment a fish is caught to the dispatch of the final product. Our fish processing plant in Uganda is one of the first in East Africa to implement such a comprehensive control mechanism. It has put into place a system of Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) which is based on standard operating procedures and good manufacturing practices. HACCP dates back to the 1960s, when NASA needed a foolproof method to prevent potentially catastrophic disease-producing bacteria and toxins in food consumed on space missions. From the 1990s onwards, the food industry has adopted this method to comply with international food safety and hygiene regulations, chief among them European Council directives 91/493/EEC and 98/83/EEC, which lay down the requirements for handling and marketing fish products destined for the EU. HACCP is, essentially, a management tool that establishes control over the entire food preparation process. It aims to prevent food safety problems rather than identifying them after they have already occurred. Under this system, food inspections take place at every level of the fish supply chain - at the catch, landing, processing and marketing stages - and involve all main industry stakeholders, from small fishermen and processing plant workers to traders and regulatory authorities. When, for example, a parasite is found in a catch at the landing stage, it is stopped in its tracks and will never reach the processing plant, thus preventing mounting costs and the further spread of the organism. HACCP also imposes strict standards regarding the construction of buildings and equipment intended for holding fish prior to export. On-site laboratories, strict record keeping, and accurate traceability procedures are other requirements. Can you describe the fish processing phases and how ICTs are integrated? The chain starts with the local fishers, who are increasingly using ICTs in their daily activities. Mobile phones, for example, now allow fishing crews to communicate with staff on shore, to notify them of any preparations that need to be made or to alert them to any difficulties. Many larger fishing vessels are equipped with computers and software that allow their crews to weigh their catch immediately and store it at the right temperature. Also, in the near future, sophisticated GPS and sonar devices will provide an affordable means of accurately tracking and determining the size of fish stocks (see elsewhere in this issue). Once ashore, the fish are subjected to quality control inspections with the help of software that measures the catch against predefined standards, assessing everything from the freshness and shelf-life of the fish, to their texture and post-mortem skin colour. The results are entered into a database. Fish that pass the test are transported to the processing plant, where they are weighed by electronic scales and graded with the help of another software package. The next step involves plant workers filleting or descaling the fish, while computer programs calculate the speed at which this is carried out and continually regulate work environment temperatures. When the fish have been deskinned and trimmed, they are graded once more as workers input their new weight and quality parameters into a database. They are then quickly moved to a chilling/freezing area, where a computer monitors the temperature and total amount of time the fish are required to stay inside. The fish are subsequently packed in boxes or cartons and moved to a separate cold storage area, which is also computer-controlled, before being dispatched to the airport or port. Marine Products Ltd is currently working to perfect this HACCP-based and ICT-supported quality control system. HACCP not only allows us to comply with EU regulations, it also produces an efficient work environment that our employees find stimulating. Above all, the system - which is in place in several other Ugandan fish processing plants - has made it possible for us to stay competitive in the international export market and to secure the future of our national fisheries. Venu Pidachy is a quality assurance manager at Uganda Marine Products, Kampala.
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