The Codfather: Scott Johnston

07/11/2017 - 12:14
Young’s Foodservice pins the responsibility for maintaining its reputation as an industry-leading fish and seafood producer squarely on the nose of one man – technical director Scott Johnston, aka The Codfather.

Q: How did you start at Young’s?

Scott Johnston: I joined Young’s 12 years ago. Since then I have gained a lot of experience by working across each of our Grimsby manufacturing sites, which has really given me the opportunity to gain a solid understanding of the raw materials used and products manufactured in each site. I was promoted to the role of group technical director in 2016. I am ultimately responsible for the safety, legality and quality of all products manufactured by Young’s. I am also responsible for our Raw Materials Quality Assessment (RMQA) laboratory based in Grimsby. RMQA is a hugely important part of the process. We check all of the ingredients being used across our manufacturing estate, therefore it is essential to have an intimate knowledge of them.

Q: How much can you tell from the smell of a fish?

SJ: Naturally, the immediate evaluation is an indication of the overall quality of the fish. Everything from the smell, taste and appearance all determine the quality. At Young’s, we have designed our very own sensory scoring system that has been developed from thousands of fish samples. The system is based on a traditional fish industry scoring method called the Torry Sensory Assessment scheme, which we have then adapted. The smell and the taste of the fish as well as the entire sensory evaluation of the eyes, gills and skin help us to determine its freshness. It also gives us a strong indication of how well the fish has been stored. When we taste and smell the product and test it against our scoring process, we are able to determine where the fish is in terms of its life cycle and, in theory, the age of the fish too. If the fish has been stored incorrectly or held outside temperature control, we can instantly pick this up.

Q: Is there training involved or do you rely largely on instinct?

SJ: There is basic training involved to gain the expertise needed, but you have to have the initial skill set too. Of course, liking fish is important as well as having a good-quality nose and a fully operational sensory palate. You gradually build up a wealth of experience in making a sensory assessment; detecting what has influenced the quality of the fish and understanding everything from the supply chain through to what you’re actually eating. When it comes to the actual day of testing, it is important that no one undertaking the analytical process has eaten anything with a strong flavour that could skew or influence their results or the raw materials. Likewise, ensuring that taste buds aren’t damaged at all by smoking, for example, is important because this can also hinder the analysis of the fish. We cook the fish using very basic methods, such as steaming or microwaving, because this has no influence on the flavour of the fish.

Q: Can you tell us about the science behind this?

SJ: The science of sensory evaluation is about picking up smells and tastes that have been created as the fish breaks down and naturally degrades from the point of catch onwards. Fish pass through a life cycle of degradation and the flesh within the fish produces specific chemicals at certain times during this process that can be picked up through sensory evaluation. The fish initially has no flavour at all, goes through a process of developing the traditional flavours that we encourage, before these, in the end, start to ‘turn’ when the fish goes off. It then produces the classic rancid aroma of ammonia.

Q: Why is it necessary to assess fish in this way?

SJ: It’s not just a simple case of giving the fish a thumbs up or down – when we analyse the fish it has to hit a certain score. This score differs for each specific species to ensure we’re hitting optimal quality. We look at a minimum score for all of the species and by setting this we have a base for consistency and a minimum standard of what we are prepared to accept into the business. In doing so, our customers are assured of the best quality every time. All of the fish we get delivered into RMQA are frozen and when we have gently defrosted the fish, we begin. The analysis is done on a ‘risk-assessed’ basis depending on how much has been delivered, where it has come from and the type of species it is. We do more testing on fish from catches with a higher ‘risk assessment’. The principles don’t change for frozen or fresh, so once the fish has been carefully defrosted to ensure we haven’t damaged or altered the flesh in any way, all the same checks will be carried out.

Q: What other sorts of problems do you detect?

SJ: When you’re dealing with fish that’s been put on a pallet straight from the sea there is always the possibility of mistakes occurring. Sometimes, when many different species are in the same catch, we can end up with a completely different product to the one claimed on the label. However, the processes we go through at the RMQA labs means such mistakes are always detected.

Q: How sure can your customers be of what they’re paying for?

SJ: There is nothing like our RMQA function anywhere else. I don’t believe that any of our competitors or anyone else within the industry is going to the same lengths and depth of analysis that we go through on our orders once they arrive. This is definitely something that we hope reassures our customers that they are getting what they pay for. The primary purpose of the RMQA is to ensure we get what we pay for and this allows us to do the same for our customers.

Q: What’s your favourite fish?

SJ: I’m from Aberdeen so I have to say haddock, particularly in Ruskoline, which is a traditional Scottish breadcrumb. This really takes me back to my childhood and I really enjoy that. I also love shellfish, particularly mussels and scallops.

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