Already, in 2023, tinned fish is enjoying great popularity. We spoke with Rabbi Chaim Goldberg, the fish expert at the OU, to get his thoughts in this area, including the origins of tinned fish, industry practices, kashrut protocols and personal anecdotes.
Steven Genack: When I contacted you regarding an interview, I mentioned that tinned fish was trending. You informed me that tinned is British for canned. Can you explain the origins of tinned fish? Where is it primarily manufactured, and does it now have a presence all around the world?
Rabbi Chaim Goldberg: Tinned is a British term. It stands for canned. In the early 1800s, in France, canning was discovered as a means of preserving food for long periods of time. It’s now taken on a fancier connotation and is manufactured worldwide with a global presence.
SG: Which varieties of fish are usually canned?
RCG: The fish you usually find tinned are sardines, tuna, anchovies, mackerel and salmon. Salmon and tuna are tinned the most. There used to be sardine canneries throughout the United States, but when tuna became so popular, many of those canneries closed. Now, sardines are usually shipped from overseas.
SG: I have read that you have a special interest in fish farms and the sustainability of raising fish. Can you elaborate on that?
RCG: The wild fish population is going down as industrial fishing has become so efficient. So, to continue to feed the planet, some kind of sustainable model is needed. When you farm fish, you are basically creating enclosed areas using nets, whether it be in the oceans or lakes, for the fish to swim freely and breed. We have seen in the past that when a certain area is overfished, a species can be wiped out. The prime example of this was the cod industry in the United States East Coast and Canada in the early 1990s. Therefore, we have to be mindful of this to ensure a vibrant fish population that doesn’t run out.
SG: What would be the procedure from the time that the fish is caught until the time it’s tinned, including the additions of any water, oil or sauces.
RCG: Optimally, close to after the fish is caught, it’s canned. If that’s not possible then it’s flash-frozen until it reaches the canning facility. Today, a lot of OU kosher-certified tinned fish comes from Portugal, Morocco and Canada. Those sites have sister canning plants right nearby, so the canning can be done rather quickly. When canned, all the other “media” is added, which means any additions, like water, oil, sauces or any other additives. After sealed, the can itself is sent through large retort ovens where it’s cooked and made ready to ship.
SG: From a kashrut perspective, what are all the issues that can arise, including the actual fish, bishul akum and ingredients.
RCG: First, the species has to be kosher. This would exclude such marine animals as mussels and squid. Then it must be confirmed that the scales can be removed without ripping the skin. Lastly, the factory has to be dedicated to only handling kosher fish. If the factory would handle non-kosher fish, there would be a concern over shared equipment. All ingredients, including oils, sauces and any kind of other additives must be confirmed to be kosher. If the fish is not edible raw and fitting in its final form to be served on a king’s table then a mashgiach might be needed to turn on the flame. This is often applicable in high quality tunas. Sardines don’t require bishul Yisroel as they are too small. If the fish is not steamed before being cooked, then it would most likely need a mashgiach to light the flame.
SG: Besides the mashgiach being on site, you have to visit the manufacturers as well. Why is that necessary? You have traveled the globe as part of your job. Are there places you have to go more than others? Is there one anecdote that stands out in all your travels?
RCG: Besides the mashgiach that is in place to supervise, we like to set up “super” visits where the Rabbinical Coordinator (RC) gives another layer of protection to ensure that the highest possible kashrut standards are being enforced. Yes, I have traveled quite extensively around the world as part of my job. I’ve been to five continents, including such places as Thailand, Vietnam, Poland, Iceland, Peru, Chile, Uganda, more than half of the provinces in Canada and more than half of the states in America. As an anecdote, I once took a twenty-hour flight to Uganda on two planes, conducted the necessary business in twenty hours on the ground with no sleep and took a return flight of twenty hours on two planes. It was quite the experience.
SG: Can you approximate about how many fish products the OU certifies?
RCG: Many thousand.
SG: I know salmon is your go-to fish. How do you feel about tinned fish? Do you have any favorites?
RCG: It’s a funny thing. As a child, I never “thought” I ate fish. But that was because I didn’t realize smoked salmon was fish. I heard it called lox and I understood that lox is something you put on a bagel, but I wasn’t officially aware of the fact that it was a fish. In the tinned area, I prefer tuna fish.
SG: Where do you see the tinned fish market going in the future?
RCG: Well, if this takes off it would be a wonderful development for the fish market, including the canneries involved.