How Norway disrupted sushi
The entry of Norwegian salmon onto the global sushi plate can be described as a disruption. It opened up a new market for Norwegian salmon, in which margins were substantially higher and volume eventually exploded during the rise of the global sushi trend.
Have you eaten raw salmon in the last week? I have. Salmon occurs on every sushi menu from Tokyo to Kigali and appears to be a sushi ingredient of long-standing tradition and authenticity.
The truth is, prior to 1985, serving raw salmon to a Japanese was unthinkable. This, however, changed forever with a Norwegian government trade initiative named “Project Japan”.
Japanese have long-standing traditions for serving raw fish, but the consumption of raw salmon was unthinkable in the early 1980s. While inferior to its Atlantic counterpart in size and meat quality, the Pacific salmon also suffers greatly from parasites and is considered uneatable, if not thoroughly heat-treated. Salmon, as a food fish, had long been present at the bottom of the Japanese market, but only as grilled, fried or smoked products selling at relatively low margins. The higher margin segments – raw fish served as sushi and sashimi – were dominated by suppliers of tuna, a very expensive commodity.
Thor Listau, at the time, a member of the Norwegian parliamentary committee for shipping and fisheries visited Japan as part of a trade delegation in 1974. He witnessed the extensive consumption of low-quality salmon and recognised an opportunity for Norwegian salmon exporters to offer a superior product. In 1980, fish farmer Thor Mowinkel became the first Norwegian salmon exporter to Japan and saw his product served as fried fish. All the while, sushi and sashimi comprised a high-end segment of approximately one million tonnes. While the Japanese food industry denounced the salmon as not being red enough, having inferior sized heads and smelling like “river fish”, Norwegian salmon advocates were determined that their fish belonged in the high end of the market.
The premise for expansion into the high-end segments was not a specific technological innovation, but rather a series of previous and ongoing technological, medical, nutritional and other innovations leading to the superior quality of the Norwegian farmed salmon. The Norwegian salmon was large and contained more fat than the Pacific salmon, making it much tastier and more inviting in a raw state. It was also blissfully free of parasites and, therefore, very well suited for raw consumption. In addition, the efficient Norwegian fish farms were able to maintain the superior quality while scaling rapidly as demand increased.
However, what finally unlocked the new market was the recognition of non-consumption and the audacity to take on a battle against it in one of the most selective fish markets in the world. In 1985, a Norwegian delegation of 20 people headed by the same Thor Listau, now Norwegian Minister of Fisheries, armed with premium raw salmon, boarded a plane for Japan.
As several members of the delegation later admitted, most of them had never tasted raw fish in their lives, as it was forbidden by law to serve raw fish in Norway at the time. The Norwegian embassy in Tokyo offered the delegates their first taste of sushi and instructed them in sushi etiquette and the use of sticks. The aim of the expedition was to double Norwegian salmon exports to Japan, by obtaining the attention of chefs and other key players in the upscale hotel and restaurant scene with help from the Norwegian embassy. As a spearhead into the Japanese market, the expedition was very successful.
Many distinguished Japanese people tasted raw salmon for the first time, and several important people were won over. Subsequent efforts in the now established “Project Japan” included a promotional visit by the Norwegian Crown Prince and Princess, as well as 30 million NOK invested in extensive market research by the Norwegian government. The effect of Project Japan’s activities throughout the second half of the 1980s was beyond what any of the contributors had expected, bringing Norwegian salmon exports to Japan from 400 million NOK to 1.8 billion NOK. Over the course of the next decade, salmon became a frequent and welcome occurrence on the Japanese sushi plate. As unlikely as it sounds, these Norwegian efforts changed one of Japan’s most deeply rooted food traditions. With Japan already won over, Norwegian salmon was ready for world domination.
While the 70s and 80s saw Japan as a thriving place of business and a cultural hot spot embraced by the young, hip and urban crowds of Europe and the United States, the resulting interest in Japanese cuisine also coincided with rising trends within healthy foods and environmental awareness in the 90s and 2000s. Fish suppliers worldwide recognised the potential of the sushi trend as a driver of demand for high-quality, high-margin products and began advocating sushi as a great addition to the national diet.
As an early supplier of raw consumption, Norwegian salmon farmers were already drilled in compliance with Japanese quality requirements for sashimi grade products. Through the continued marketing efforts of the Norwegian industry and government, the Norwegian salmon could piggy-back the sushi wave as it swept the globe. Today, Norwegian farmed salmon is the dominating fish used in sushi restaurants worldwide. It is safe to say that Project Japan prepared the ground for an industrial success story.
Today, Norway is the world’s leading country within salmon farming and exports to more than 150 countries. With Marine Harvest as the world’s largest supplier of salmon, Norwegian farmers produce more than one million tonnes of salmon each year. Meanwhile, demand still exceeds supply, as the industry directs its attention towards the Chinese market. According to the Norwegian Seafood Council, Chinese salmon consumption is expected to rise from 55,000 tonnes in 2013 to between 150,000 and 200,000 tonnes in 2018, of which more than 80 percent will be consumed as raw fish. Norwegian exporters target consumers through a ramp-up of deliveries to Chinese sushi restaurants, as Norwegian salmon maintains its position as the dominating fish served in sushi restaurants worldwide.
Sources: Nofima, Innovation Norway, The Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries, The Norwegian Seafood
Council, Teknisk Ukeblad, Aftenposten.
Images: creativecommons.org -creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode
This article was originally authored by Ida Groth.
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