BEALS ISLAND — By the time the dishes are cleared from Maine’s annual 40-million pound lobster feed, we Americans have gobbled, slurped and splashed our way through about 20 million pounds of the ultimate white meat, succulent and butter-drenched. That’s the good part.
Rotting out on the national back porch is a mammoth 10,000-ton trash bag of stink-to-high-heaven lobster shells, bodies and goop — garbage so foul we swear next year we’ll order out pizza.
Down on Beals Island, generations-old Carver Shellfish Inc. is working to bring some modern table manners to the business, first by having launched a quick-frozen tail and claw line, which could send the lobster bib to the ash bin of history, and now by developing a process to turn every scrap of waste into something useful.
“We’ve been working for four years to add as much value as possible to lobster, to move away from merely selling an unimproved natural resource,” says Raoul Pelletier, a career veteran of the food-processing industry who heads up the waste-recovery project. “The first phase was the frozen product, which we believe is every bit as good as fresh in taste and texture and vastly superior in consistency. The second phase we’re in now is to recover value from the waste, to turn what has been a major liability for the industry into an asset.”
The waste recovery project is funded in part by a $37,500 Fishing Industry Grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce through a program to help the industry develop new products and markets.
The heart of the project is a machine adapted from the poultry industry that separates lobster waste into two components: a meat paste and a ground powder of shell and fiber.
The paste, an orange pate, can be used as the base for soups, sauces, salad dressings, stuffings, perhaps even lobster burgers. Carver’s will be working with the University of Maine Food Science Department this year to develop marketable products and to conduct taste-test focus groups.
The shell and fiber powder has been chemically analyzed and found to have great potential as a nutrient-rich additive to high-quality fertilizer and to feed for the salmon aquaculture industry.
“None of this is totally new,” Pelletier said. “The Canadians have been extracting paste for years, the shells and bodies have been composted, but we’re trying to take it to a level where one day the lobster industry will be waste free, where, instead of paying a composter to haul off our waste, we have a valuable product to sell.”
The Maine lobster industry is riding high on several consecutive years of record harvests in the 40-million pound range, but Pelletier, like many, believes a drop back to the traditional harvests of 20 to 25-million pounds is inevitable.
“We’re dealing with Mother Nature here, with cycles we cannot control,” he said. “Right now, the predators of young lobsters — such as cod and haddock — are in decline, so the lobster population is up. When the predators come back, lobster will level off. When that happens, lobstermen will really see the benefits of adding more value to the product.
“I’ve worked in virtually every part of the food industry — candy, produce, fish, poultry — and this is the key everywhere: extract the maximum out of your raw material, turn what you’ve been throwing away into a product with value.”
Only about 8 to 10 percent of Maine lobsters are processed, with the bulk going to the live market. Brent Beal, plant manager of Carver’s Island Maid brand frozen shellfish line, says overcoming the public belief that the only good lobster is a live lobster will take time and an industry dedicated to quality.
“Anyone who buys live lobster knows what happens — you get one that’s perfect, one that’s tough as leather and one that’s mush,” Beal said. “With our quick-freeze process and quality control, the inferior lobsters never make it to market, the customer never gets a bad lobster. Our packaging has five layers of protection. We run abuse tests. We constantly evaluate quality. Right now, we’re up to an 18-month shelf life with no loss of quality.”
Carver’s spotless processing plant produced about 800,000 pounds of cryogenically frozen lobster product last year and is aiming for a million this year, nearly all going to restaurants and hotels. About three-fourths of the product is raw green tails and the rest pre-cooked claws.
“The big surprise has been the claws,” Beal said. “We sold 200,000 pounds last year and could have sold twice that if we’d had it. The Las Vegas casinos love them. We score the shell so you can just snap it open. They make great finger food.”
While 40 million pounds of lobster worth more than $100 million is a pretty big deal down on the docks, Pelletier says lobstermen need to take a closer look at how they fit into the big food-industry picture.
“In the food business, 40 million pounds is nothing. Americans eat 40 million pounds of candy a day,” he said. “The lobster industy has been under this terrible disadvantage of having to sell a live product. Imagine what would happen to the poultry industry if people suddenly thought they had to bring live chickens home from the store.
“Every sector of the food industry has the same challenge — deliver a product that is high quality, consistent and convenient and cut your waste to the absolute minimum. If you don’t use it, you lose it.”