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Dalvik, in the north of Iceland, is a fishing port which supplies fish to destinations all over Europe including France.
We follow a batch of cod which was caught well above the Arctic Circle.
Gudmundur I. Gudmundsson is a fisherman, working on the boat which caught the fish. He said: “The weather was awful up there, really stormy. And wind was from the southwest, the worst direction for cod fishing. But we finally managed to catch around 40 tons of cod”.
There are scientists as well as fishermen working in the fisheries in Iceland. They are part of a European Union research project to assess – in real time – the freshness of this cod until it is consumed – some 2,700 kms away from here.
Sigurdur Bogason, a food scientist at the University of Iceland explained: “Whatever happens, any rise of temperature will reduce the shelf life of this fish. And what fresh fish is about is to bring a maximum of freshness and quality to the consumer. And to achieve that, you have to manage each step of the transportation chain. If there is one step you don´t know anything about, and where you have abuse of temperature, it may affect the total quality of the fish, and possibly also the safety of the product.”
At the processing factory, where around 3 tons of cod are filleted, chilled and dispatched every day, Italian researcher Luca Zanella installs temperature sensors inside and outside the boxes, and connects them to cellular networks.
He told us: “A biosensor sends information about the temperature inside and outside the fish box, and the time it was taken. It can record temperature every minute, every 10 minutes, every hour – and then it sends this data to a central system by a cellular network.”
The cod will travel to Europe by road and ferry, which is slower but also cheaper than going by plane. The temperature of the cod should never exceed 4ºC – or it will start to deteriorate.
With antennae and GPS installed, real-time temperature measuring can start.
Tomas Haflidason, an industrial engineer from the University of Iceland said: “We have low ambient temperature inside the truck. We have also a good low temperature in the fish. So the system is telling us that by now everything is OK.”
Meanwhile, samples of the same fish have been sent to a lab in Reykjavik where it is cooked and tasted by volunteers. Combined with microbiology analyses, these tastings help scientists understand how fresh fish deteriorates overtime.
Emilía Martinsdóttir, a chemical engineer with Matis explained: “Right after the death of the fish, the number of microbes starts to increase. These microbes form spoilage compounds of nitrogen and sulphure. Most people don’t like the taste of these chemical compounds. That’s why at the end, when the fish is no longer fresh, it becomes disgusting.”
Meanwhile, the chilled cod has crossed Iceland and is now on a ferry. After a stopover in the Faroe Islands, it arrives in Denmark where it is loaded onto another lorry. Nine days after the cod was caught, the truck arrives in France.
It is six o´clock in the morning and scientists are already supervising both the fish and the measuring equipment.
Tomas Haflidason: “The journey was quite long. We sailed first from Iceland to Faroe Islands, then we came to Denmark. Then yesterday we drove all the way from Denmark to Belgium, and then we have just arrived here to Boulogne-sur-Mer.”
The temperature of the fish is around 1ºC, and it has remained stable during almost the whole trip.
Tomas Haflidason: “In the east of Iceland, for approximately half an hour the temperature of the fish rose to about 5ºC. But the weather conditions in Iceland were quite cool, so that short temperature abuse did not matter very much.”
These cod samples will be sent to a laboratory near the harbour for further microbiological studies.
The equipment has also helped to assess the quality of the cod in difficult conditions, including extreme humidity.
And that is good news, says the project’s co-ordinator.
Matthias Kück, co-ordinator of the Chill-On Project: “There is a clear commercial interest in achieving commercial exploitable results of all this equipment. This starts from ICT solutions like supplying chain management software to individual techniques to determine bacterial load to predict market life of the food product, up to recording time history by using time temperature indicators.”
As a last step in this research effort, scientists take the monitored Icelandic cod to a local fishmonger, who agrees to store it.
Customers say they want fresh fish at good prices.
Says Philippe Legrand, a French fishmonger: “If the fish isn’t fresh, people won’t buy it. When it’s shiny, good quality, not sticky… then they come back.”
Back in Iceland, scientists hope real-time temperature monitoring will also help to promote sustainable fishing, as less fish will be wasted.
Says Sigurdur Bogason: “If you lose quality, you lose market value. And eventually, if you lose all the quality, you lose all the market value. And the fish is wasted in the market place; basically the dustbin behind the supermarket will get this fish, not the consumer.”
Sigurdur Bogason summed up: “I’m not sure that this project will be the end of the story. Technology is coming along. Electronics are coming along. ICT solutions are coming along. The computer age is here. We can master different things than we did five years ago. So five years from now, we may have a new idea, and a new barrier to break. It is a neverending story, really. But that is what science is about: breaking barriers.”
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