On May 19, at the Ready Seafood Lobster Processing Plant in Sako, about 250 workers were posted along a massive processing system that kills, butchers, sorts, cooks, extracts, freezes and packages 100,000 pounds of lobsters a day.
Above the screen of the production line is a futuristic top chamber that houses a $2.5 million high-pressure processing machine, the cornerstone of a new plant built in 2019. On that day, claws and knuckles were lifted from the first floor. conveyor belt and fell onto the top of a two-story vertical steel cylinder that hangs from a track in the ceiling.
When the huge cylinder fills up, a worker pulls it along a rail to a hole in the floor of the vault and lowers it inside. The movable lid automatically slides, closes, and the vault is filled with water. The pressure then rises, holds, and then falls again over a four to five minute cycle.
The high-pressure process, which is currently being used by at least three lobster processors in Maine, opens up new possibilities for products, saves consumers effort in separating meat from shells, and reduces labor costs at the processing plant.
“It never ceases to amaze me, since I used to carry traps by hand as a kid,” said Kurt Brown, a marine biologist at Ready Seafood. “It’s really neat equipment. This is the future.”
Brown, who has a master’s degree in marine biology and policy from the University of Maine and a decade of experience at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, was hired seven years ago as part of Ready Seafood’s decision to do science with a focus on quality and sustainability. Brown has led Ready into several industry and academic partnerships with the State Department of Marine Resources, UMaine, and other educational institutions, as well as outreach to Maine public schools.
“You add value by creating new products and investing in technologies such as high pressure processing, which allows you to create new products and make lobster more appealing to more people around the world,” Brown said.
Over the past couple of years, more lobster processors in Maine have switched to high-pressure processing technology since Richmond-based Shucks Maine Lobster pioneered it in the state in 2006. This technology was originally developed in Spain as a cold pasteurization method to extend the shelf life of the traditional cured ham known as Jamón Serrano, applies up to 87,000 psi of water pressure to food, killing microorganisms with minimal impact on taste, texture and nutritional value. without the need for preservatives.
When lobsters are processed this way, the high pressure also ruptures the membrane that connects the meat to the shell, allowing the raw meat to be extracted, which was previously impossible. The unfamiliar, translucent, jelly-like red meat may not look particularly appetizing, but processors say it opens up many possibilities for new and innovative preparations.
Chefs are experimenting with new lobster dishes on their menus, and Ready Seafood offers recipe tutorials on their Instagram account using raw cold-cooked lobsters, from crispy fried lobster meat to lobster carbonara.
It’s also a more humane way to kill lobsters than boiling them alive. Since the UK recognized lobsters as sentient, this was more of a concern for consumers. Ready Seafood puts the lobsters through an electroshock machine as soon as they are unloaded and then either cuts them first or seals them whole.
The Ethical Treatment of Animals has previously endorsed electrocution and high-pressure treatment as humane ways to kill lobsters, but it is currently promoting veganism over any consumption of seafood.
“While killing lobsters under pressure may be a little less brutal than boiling these sensitive animals to death or tearing them apart, as shown in the PETA eyewitness revelations, what lobsters really want is to live in peace,” said PETA senior spokeswoman Sophia Chauvet. adding that people can enjoy vegan seafood substitutes.
High pressure processing makes harvesting both raw and cooked lobster meat easier, reducing the need for labor. However, Ready Seafood is recruiting workers from all over the world to meet its needs during the harvest season: 250 people a day work at the Saco plant and about 75 people at the live lobster plant on the Portland waterfront.
SMALL BATCH, HIGH PRESSURE
While Ready Seafood processes millions of pounds of lobster a year at its new plant, the technology is also being applied on a smaller scale.
For the past 25 years, Greenhead Lobster has specialized in live lobster from Stonington, shipping worldwide. In 2019, amid trade wars and high tariffs, he moved into recycling, building a new plant in Bucksport and investing in a horizontal high-pressure treatment system from Spanish manufacturer Hiperbaric.
“It was a big decision,” owner Hugh Reynolds said of the $2.7 million system. “One thing about the car is that we can’t do that much in a day. It slows things down a bit, but that was fine with us because we just wanted to focus on quality rather than volume. Now we have full faith in this process.”
Processing around 30,000 pounds a day and around 5 million pounds a year, Greenhead doesn’t produce as high volumes as larger processors, but specializes in low-volume, fully traceable Stonington lobster sourced from Deer Isle. During the off-season, she buys some lobster from Canada, but doesn’t process Maine lobster and Canadian lobster together on the same day. During a visit this month, the company was handling 148 crates of lobsters, which were delivered in 40 minutes from the wharf in Stonington.
Once unloaded, the lobsters are checked for liveliness and then placed in small cylinders a little larger than a bread box on a conveyor belt that feeds them to a compressor. Inside, five high-pressure pumps pressurize to levels similar to those found in the depths of the Mariana Trench, Reynolds says, instantly killing lobsters as well as germs that can cause spoilage.
From there they enter the production line, where the tails are removed and the legs and torso are separated. Raw tailings are passed through a liquid nitrogen freezer. On cooking days, the claws are sent to the cooker and passed to a clean room for ready-to-eat foods. On other days, the claw meat and shank are removed raw and packaged for sale to distributors and restaurants.
Reynolds said the decision to go into processing was prompted by the opportunity to sell frozen lobster tails at home shopping chain QVC. He hired the processor on a short-term basis and began to explore various processing options.
“I really focused on trying to create a frozen lobster tail that would be like eating a lobster on a dock in the summer,” he said. “It was a vision to take the delicious Stonington lobster but make it more affordable because live lobster was getting more and more complex.”
He eventually settled on high-pressure processing because it extended shelf life, made extraction easier for both workers and consumers, and maintained the quality of the meat. Greenhead advertises an 18-day shelf life for fresh meat, which helps restaurants not worry about using it immediately.
Some people said that Reynolds went crazy building a processing plant in Bucksport due to the difficulty of finding workers in the area, but the ease of extracting meat under high pressure meant that more meat could be processed by smaller groups. Greenhead employs 75 to 80 people and has been able to fill jobs without the use of foreign visa holders.
Steph Lindsay, director of sales and marketing for Greenhead, said the company did market research and found that getting meat from lobster tails was a challenge for its customers. The high pressure process makes this easier.
“It’s like a live lobster without the hassle of a lobster cracker,” Lindsay said. “We’ve been playing live for so long that until we were able to do something like that, we didn’t want to do the processing. It had to be the right technology to fit our mission of making sure people get the best. quality Stonington lobster.”
HUMAN AND DELICIOUS DEATH
The fact that high pressure treatment kills lobsters instantly was also important to Greenhead.
Over the years, the team has perfected the processing process so that live lobsters are not stressed from the boat to the consumer. At the dock, each lobster is unloaded from the boat and climbed up a ramp into a cold water tank, then sorted and placed in another salt water tank.
The live product is shipped to Seabrook in New Hampshire, closer to the airport, and stored in a tank the size of a football field until it is packaged and shipped on a plane. Each reservoir is controlled to mimic very cold ocean water as closely as possible.
The company’s interest in reducing lobster stress began as an attempt to reduce traffic fatalities, but has since evolved as the team learned of the Japanese views on death in meat and fish and the importance of instant euthanasia.
Research shows that improper handling, unnatural storage and inhumane slaughter methods can lead to the release of stress hormones and enzymes, which can adversely affect meat quality. Other animal studies show that eating foods containing these hormones can trigger the release of those same hormones in the consumer.
“We didn’t want handling to be stressful after we spent all that time (storage and transport) handling it properly,” Lindsay said. “So death becomes very important, and that’s how we treat it. It’s a Japanese philosophy, but there are studies on it.”
It is this aspect of processing that Reynolds and Lindsay would like to convey to the public.
“(High pressure processing) is a weird, esoteric, technical term, and wholesalers understand it, but really no one else,” Lindsay said, so he is working on developing a better term for the concept for US marketing purposes.
He sees a connection with the Japanese “ike jime,” which refers to a way of slaughtering and processing fish that respects the animal’s well-being and is designed to preserve the quality of the meat longer and enhance the taste. This method suggests killing the fish with a hard blow to the head or piercing the brain with spikes within a minute of taking it out of the water as a first step.
While ike jime is a 200-year-old process, high-pressure processing achieves many goals with technology, and Maine lobster processors see the potential to add value to their products.
“It’s such a traditional industry. It’s technology like this that allows us to continue to grow as a company and as an industry,” said Ready Seafood’s Brown. “Our job is to create value. This is really something that will drive our industry forward in the future.”
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