The initiative, which aligned BioMar, the SARIA Group, retailer Morrisons, the University of Stirling, and was part funded by the Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre (SAIC), kicked off in autumn 2016.
The first phase of the investigation, lasting six months, involved two scoping exercises, one of which relied on desk research and focus groups to determine consumer acceptance on the use of avian protein in salmon diets, the other study employed life cycle analysis (LCA) methods to compare the carbon footprint of various protein inputs for fish feed against avian protein.
The partners are now looking to alleviate any lingering concerns about the use of such protein sources in salmon feed in the UK.
Avian protein is a processed animal protein (PAP)
PAP is derived from category 3 material such as edible bones, feathers, skins or tendons that is considered fit for human consumption according to the strictest safety rules but, because of consumer dietary preferences, is not sold on the food market.
“While some of the feedback we received was surprising – a percentage of consumers did not even know salmon was farmed - we found we would be more or less pushing an open door in terms of consumer acceptance of the use of avian proteins in fish feeds. The consumers we polled would be quite happy to go down that path.
“However, following our various focus group discussions and social media based surveys, we realize we still have to undertake further research to tackle various unanswered questions from members of the public, relating to, for example, the health and quality of salmon reared on diets containing avian protein ingredients. To address that and to find out what additional areas of clarification consumers need, we now require more funding,” Dr Brett Glencross, deputy director, Institute of Aquaculture, University of Stirling, told us.
Weighing up the environmental costs of different feed ingredients, the partners assessed soybean meal, fishmeal, corn gluten meal and avian protein. “LCA is quite a structured science these days. Our analysis showed the environmental impact of avian protein is less than that of soybean meal or corn gluten meal and equivalent to that of fishmeal,” he said.
The initial six-month phase cost £68,144 (US$87,904), of which SAIC contributed £40,907.
Dr Glencross said his sense, after the initial consultation work, is that feed companies seem willing to sell feed containing processed animal proteins (PAPs), and UK consumers are generally supportive of their use in rations if that means cost-effective salmon production, but UK retailers appear the least enthusiastic about embracing the use of PAPs in salmon feed.
The big supermarket chains are wary, evidently, of scare stories in the media around the use of blood and feather meal from poultry in fish negatively influencing consumer perception of such feed, he said. “One newspaper headline last year in the UK mentioned salmon coming to a counter near you that was ‘truly fowl’ and that did not help our cause.”
Morrisons, at the outset of the avian protein initiative, said it was committed to ensuring its seafood-sourcing program used methods that were the least detrimental to the marine environment. “This project will explore decreasing our reliance on marine resources for fish feed. If this concept proves acceptable to our customers, we could change our feed ingredient policy,” it said last September.
A spokesperson for the chain told us this week that until its former head of aquaculture (HoA), who left, is replaced, the retailer could not provide an up-to-date position statement on the use of avian proteins in salmon. “Wasn't this a listening project anyway to understand what consumers thought of the concept? I'm guessing the new HoA will look at those findings before making any decisions.”
However, Dr Glencross said both Tesco and Sainsbury’s have indicated interest in getting involved in the project, depending on the outcome of the more in-depth consumer survey.
Sainsbury’s, though, did not respond to our request for comment.
Use of PAPs in fish feed beyond UK
The Chilean and Australian salmon farming sectors have been using avian proteins as an alternative to marine ingredients and plant proteins for more than a decade.
Robin Shields, aquaculture innovation manager, SAIC, told us previously that most of the major European feed companies already have some track record of using avian protein meals in feeds for seabream, seabass, trout and other species - just not in the UK.
“I have heard conflicting accounts about the use of PAPs in feed manufacturing contracts in continental Europe. Some retailers there stress that no land animal proteins are used in their supply chains, whereas the feed companies say they are using them in trout, sea bass and sea bream feeds for certain markets,” said Dr Glencross.
Marit Husa, communication manager for Skretting, the fish feed division of Dutch feed giant, Nutreco, told us:
“In Europe, in particular, the use of PAPs in aqua feeds had not been possible due to regulatory restrictions, but with the opening up of the European market to this protein source [in June 2013], their use has increased in some countries where customer acceptance is not an issue.”
She said Skretting expects the use of PAPs, together with other raw materials such as insect meal, to increase in European aquaculture in the coming years but such use would still be very much market dependent. “PAPs are proteins that show very good performance.”
Martin Alm, technical director, European Fat Processors and Renderers Association, (EFPRA), said increasing the use of PAP in fish feed would prevent high value protein going towards lower value technical uses. “Animal protein is very well accepted in fish feed.”
The total amount of animal protein meals produced worldwide was 12.5 million tons in 2014, but EFPRA is not able to provide data showing the volumes of PAP used in fish feed in Europe, he said.
“Every year, we collect statistical data from our members. Besides volumes, we also ask them for what purpose fat and proteins are used. So we have seen an increased use of PAP in fish feed, but we cannot determine whether this use is in Europe or in other third countries.”
EFPRA members do not sell directly to fish producers. PAP and fat is exported but also sold to European traders and fish feed compounders that may export feedstuffs to third countries, he added.
Meanwhile, UK rendering group, Fabra, recently estimated they were over 127,000 tons of rendered poultry proteins available in the UK alone. The UK salmon sector is using 270,000 tons of feeds annually, produced locally, but with most of the ingredients imported. Thus, Dr Glencross said the use of avian protein, while being a great supply of amino acids for Scottish salmon diets, would also be an efficient use of local feed resources.
Moreover, he said, buying feather meal in pound sterling instead of soy concentrate from Brazil, which is traded in US dollars, would also reduce the currency exchange risk for UK producers, an ever-present risk in the wake of the Brexit vote.