Fish sticks could be the answer to seafood sustainability

Making seafood more sustainable.
Making seafood more sustainable.
Image: Reuters/Pascal Rossignol
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This is the full transcript of the fifth episode of the Quartz Obsession podcast season two on fish sticks. Here’s a lightly edited transcript if you prefer. 

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Kira Bindrim: When was the last time you ate a fish stick? For me, it was probably 25 years ago, when dinner meant tumbling down the stairs for fish sticks, baby carrots, and Sunny Delight. I liked fish sticks for the reason a lot of kids like them: because they barely tasted like fish.

So I haven’t had a fish stick in 25 years, but that’s actually not the case for many people around the world. During the pandemic, fish stick sales rose as much as 50% in some places. People were looking for convenient, kid-friendly foods that are easy to stock up on. And that’s only the latest problem that fish sticks have swooped in to solve. After their invention in the 1950s, fish sticks helped with an oversupply of fish following World War II. They were there a few years later when more women started full-time work. And when people started cutting red meat out of their diets, fish sticks even played a role in making seafood more sustainable. So while they may just be frozen rectangles, fish sticks are actually flexible enough to help solve some of the food world’s biggest problems.

This is the Quartz Obsession, a podcast that explores the fascinating backstories behind everyday ideas and what they tell us about the global economy. I’m your host, Kira Bindrim. Today: fish sticks, a childhood staple that’s all grown up.

I’m joined now by Liz Webber, who is a deputy email editor at Quartz and who’s also based in New York, so we are together in the studio. And Liz got interested in fish sticks because she actually has a background in covering the supermarket industry. But Liz, I’m actually curious: To start, when is the last time you ate fish sticks yourself.

You can read a condensed version of this podcast interview here.

Liz Webber: So it wasn’t technically a fish stick, but, like many people during the pandemic, I was looking for something easy that I could just pull out of the freezer and make quickly. And I bought these fish filets that were just glorified fish sticks—you know, they were about the same length as a fish stick on one end, the same width and just a little bit wider at the other end. And they were delicious.

Kira Bindrim: And just you needed a convenient…

Liz Webber: Exactly.

History of the fish stick

Kira Bindrim: A convenient thing, a convenient stick. So let us dig into the history of the fish stick. I really like the idea that this food that I mostly associate with childhood and Sunny Delight is actually kind of playing a quiet role in the background of the global economy over the last 70 years. So start by telling me: When were fish sticks actually invented?

Liz Webber: So it starts in the 1950s. And fish sticks were a solution to a problem that consumers didn’t know they had. Following World War II, the fishing industry modernized, upgraded—they had bigger boats, refrigeration was available so they could catch a lot of fish, refrigerate it, and process it on their boats and had all this fish that they were trying to sell to the American public. But the Americans weren’t buying it. You know, post-World War II all of a sudden meat was available again that had been ration during the war. Fish is annoying, it’s smelly, you know, it’s hard to prepare if you’re just going to go buy a whole fish. So the fishing industry started brainstorming ways they could interest the American consumer in fish. The first product they came up with was a bit of a failure. It was a fish brick.

Kira Bindrim: Oh already I have…

Liz Webber: Oh, I know, the name itself. So it’s a kind of what it sounds like: a giant tub of frozen fish that you just like scrape out as much as you want when you’re ready to cook like an ice cream tub.

Kira Bindrim: You can picture or I am now picturing like the pitch meeting where they were like, ‘Okay, I have an idea. We’ve got all this fish. You know how ice cream works. What if we did that?’ So this did not go over well?

Liz Webber: No, no. No one was interested in the fish brick, not surprisingly. So, 1953, after three years of product development, the Birds Eye brand in the US came out with the fish stick. You know, it’s a long, skinny piece of fish, breaded and fried. It was closely followed by two other brands, Gorton’s and Fulham brothers. So it really took off.

Kira Bindrim: And this is basically like you take the fish brick, and you cut it into slices, and you drop it into some egg and some flour and some salt, and you’re deep frying it, and you’re breading it—and that’s the fish stick?

Liz Webber: That is basically how they’re made. And all these years later, that part of it hasn’t changed much.

Fish sticks gained popularity across the world

Kira Bindrim: When I’m thinking about fish sticks in my childhood, I’m of course thinking about a very American childhood, and I know that they are popular in the US in that sense. Are fish sticks as popular elsewhere in the world?

Liz Webber: They certainly have a lot of popularity in Europe. The UK is still very big on the fish finger.

Recording: I stop for Birds Eye fish fingers. My family loves them. No skin or bones, they’re all fish. Stop at the Birds Eye, shop at the Birds Eye, stop at the Birds Eye shop.

Liz Webber: Germany, also big consumers of fish sticks—the German people eat 2 billion fish sticks a year.

Kira Bindrim: It’s a very utilitarian food, so that kind of tracks for me.

Liz Webber: Makes sense. Elsewhere in the world, you know, it varies. In 2016, Domino’s China created a special Chinese New Year pizza that had fish sticks in the shape of fish on it because fish are a symbol of wealth and success. So it was an auspicious food for the new year. There’s a brand in South Africa called Sea Harvest that has been making fish sticks or fish fingers since the early 1970s. If you’re looking elsewhere in Africa, had difficulty finding figures or details on store-bought frozen fish sticks. But food blogs in places like Egypt, Nigeria, or Kenya have recipes for making fish fingers at home. So it’s a food that is known and possibly popular there, but not necessarily that you would buy at the store. Although, Kenya within the past couple of years has been trying to promote their local fishing industry, increase production as well as, you know, help the fishermen make more money by introducing processed products like fish sticks.

Kira Bindrim: So if you’re in a country or a region where eating fish is already common, it’s a convenient way to eat fish is to breaded and put it into little sticks. And if you’re in a country where there is some aversion to fish, which is I think part of why fish sticks are popular in the US, it’s still a win-win food because it you kind of forget it tastes like fish in the first place.

Liz Webber: The one exception to that I would say is Japan, where fish are very, common fresh fish are eaten quite often, but fish sticks are not really a thing there.

Kira Bindrim: If I were a fish stick and I were writing my resume, as a fish stick would do, it sounds like the first job arrives in the 1950s. And that’s really the oversupply of fish in the wake of World War II. What is the second job? Like, why do fish sticks start to take off in a consumer-friendly way or in households around the US?

Liz Webber: So it has to do with the convenience aspect of it for sure. You know, Gorton’s especially, which is one of the major brands in the US, really leaned into this idea of saving time for busy homemakers. They had a campaign that’s called ‘the busy campaign.’ The slogan was: Let Gorton’s famous seafood chefs cook for you. So it really aimed at homemakers, and also women who are working outside the home all of a sudden, who needed to get dinner on the table every night.

Kira Bindrim: It kind of makes sense to me that fish sticks would be big in the 1950s because, in my head, they feel very much like the past’s idea of what the future of food would look like.

Liz Webber: Sure.

Fish stick sales increased during the covid-19 pandemic

Kira Bindrim: They’re convenient, they’re in a weird shape, you can make them very quickly, they’re kind of space-age, they’re very removed from the thing that they are actually made from in terms of look and feel. But I’m curious which of these advantages—the convenience, all of that stuff—still feel relevant today, you know, 50-some years later, when arguably some of the problems we look to our food to solve are not are not identical? So why would you say fish sticks are still popular now?

Liz Webber: It’s certainly the convenience factor for a lot of people. You know, looking at the past year and a half, fish stick sales exploded during the pandemic. Birds Eye in the UK said fish fingers were their fastest growing product of 2020—sales were up 23%. FRoSTA, the German brand, their fish stick sales were up 50%. And so, certainly it’s easy. You can just stick it in your freezer, the kids are home and you need to feed them because they’re not at school, they’re doing Zoom school or whatever. But it’s also older millennials who are returning to their childhood, there’s a nostalgia factor for sure.

Kira Bindrim: Is that sort of Renaissance entirely unique to fish sticks? Or did we see some of that interest in frozen food more widely, which I would assume solves for a lot of those sort of pandemic-driven needs?

Liz Webber: Sure, frozen foods across the board had a lot of sales growth during the pandemic. It did start a little bit before the pandemic, you know, looking at millennials who are now parents who have to get food on the table, and they would often turn to frozen choices for that. But frozen meals, frozen appetizers, frozen seafood generally—sales are up within the past couple of years. So it does kind of follow on a larger trend. And one of the reasons that sales have continued to be high for frozen food, even as, you know, restaurants have reopened, you’re going back to the office, is people bought freezers during the pandemic. And so now they’re like, ‘Oh, I can stock this freezer, because I have it.’

Kira Bindrim: Hmm! Should I have bought a freezer?

Liz Webber: It’s a little harder in an apartment than in a house.

Kira Bindrim: It would be weird if I went to someone’s house and they’re like, no, this is my second freezer, my…

Liz Webber: Although you could have like a mini freezer, like instead of a mini fridge for your beer, you could have a mini freezer for your fish sticks.

Kira Bindrim: After the break, are fish sticks sustainable?

[[ad break]]

Making seafood sustainable

Kira Bindrim: So I want to talk a little bit about the environmental aspect of fish sticks. I generally think of packaged foods, or even frozen foods, as bad for the environment, which is maybe my own ignorance. But in this case, it seems like fish sticks actually have like a little bit of an opportunity, or not as bad as I might think. Are they more sustainable, let’s say, than some other meat options?

Liz Webber: Obviously, as with anything involving sustainability, the answer is: It’s complicated. But, looking at where the fish comes from that goes into fish sticks—a lot of it is Alaskan Pollock, or, you know, some other similar species. And those fisheries tend to be very sustainable. A lot of the fish stick brands actually have sought out a sustainability certification of some kind, whether it’s the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), or something else. FRoSTA, that German brand, actually stopped making fish fingers for almost 10 years because they couldn’t source enough MSC-certified fish. And they only recently restarted in 2014. So it’s certainly something that the food companies are thinking about. At the same time, there was a study (pdf) that came out a couple of years ago, that said, yes, the fisheries are sustainable, but that’s not the only thing that goes into making fish sticks—you have to look at the entire supply chain. So after the fish are caught, and, you know, frozen into the giant bricks of fish, they are put on cargo ships that are these gas-guzzling ships. Fish that’s caught off of Alaska, a lot of times, goes to China first to be processed and then sent back to the US where it ends up on trucks to get that go out to the supermarket. So that part of it adds a significant amount of carbon emissions. And so you have to think about the entire supply chain when looking at any product. So, it’s complicated.

Kira Bindrim: It is always complicated. I just, I want it to be as simple as a fish stick seems. But so it sounds like, from a sourcing perspective, fish sticks are relatively sustainable, or there are there are ways to make them sustainable. And then from a supply chain perspective, it’s complicated.

Liz Webber: Exactly. So thinking about other types of fish that you might get from the fish counter or from a restaurant that are overfished or they’re fished illegally, fish sticks have really got a leg up on those.

Kira Bindrim: Am I right in understanding that fish sticks do not always need to be the same type of fish, so that if there were a need to source a different type of fish or source from a different place for environmental reasons, that fish sticks, like have that flexibility?

Liz Webber: Yes, for sure. Like any kind of mild flavored white fish, pretty much, is going to work in a fish stick. Over the years since the 1950s, it’s gone through different types of fish as different supplies become available or less available.

Kira Bindrim: And consumers generally don’t notice?

Liz Webber: They have no idea.

Rebranding the frozen food aisle

Kira Bindrim: We’ve been talking about some of the shift in what fish sticks are solving for, you know, going from an oversupply of fish, into sort of the way households were changing, into a pandemic and the convenience aspects. Is there anything about how the marketing of fish sticks has changed over time in alignment with some of these changing needs? Like, if the marketing 50 years ago was largely reflective of the things that fish sticks were solving for then, is it now reflecting the things that they’re solving for today?

Liz Webber: Yes and no. On the fish stick packaging, you will see a lot more about sustainability, for sure. But two of the biggest fish stick or fish finger brands that we’ve been talking, about a couple of years ago around the same time really revamped their marketing efforts in order to appeal to a younger, hipper demographic. So Birds Eye in the UK had been using this character since 1967 called Captain Birdseye. He was a little cartoonish, kinda like a Santa Claus, you know, friendly grandpa with a beard, was played by the same actor for more than 30 years and then since then, there’s been a few different people who have taken on the role of Captain Birdseye. But in 2018, he was recast as this kind of hunky sailor. Which caused a lot of consternation in the UK, in part because it was, you know, this iconic childhood character that was all of a sudden sex-ified, but also it was an Italian actor that people were upset about.

Kira Bindrim: Oh, interesting. I think I’m generally for this sort of glow up of our childhood mascots and food characters.

Liz Webber: Sure, why not?

Kira Bindrim: Like Mr. Clean and who else—Colonel Sanders. I mean, he’s had a real time.

Liz Webber: It’s true.

Kira Bindrim: I don’t know why all of that was right at the top of my head. This is not something I’m researching, everyone, just to be clear.

Liz Webber: Here in the US, the Gorton’s brand, since 1975, has used a character: the Gorton’s fishermen. And it’s kind of a simple, old school New England fisherman. He’s got a yellow rain slicker and a rain hat. So he did not get a glow up. But also in 2018, he was joined by some new friends: the mer-bros.

Kira Bindrim: Go on.

Liz Webber: So, it’s kind of exactly what it sounds like: these very bro-y mermen who are also very sparkly.

Recording, Gorton’s commercial:

Bro 1: As mer-bros, we’re always trying to be our best selves, a lot like Gorton’s.

Bro 2: We’re getting more ripped, and more emotionally available.

Bro 1: And with their new fish sticks and fillets, Gorton’s is as its best, too. 

Kira Bindrim: It’s not the direction I thought that your answer would go, with mer-bros. They have gone from marketing fish sticks pretty much for people who are cooking meals for kids at home, to ‘here’s a food that you can be cool and eat, no matter your age.’

Liz Webber: Exactly. And, again, the older millennials, they had these fish sticks as kids, and now they are our age, in their 30s, trying to feel like they are still cool.

Kira Bindrim: Yeah. And I truly only buy frozen foods with sexy mascots.

Liz Webber: Absolutely, it’s a good life rule.

The future of food

Kira Bindrim: If you had asked me what food from the 1950s would have staying power, I don’t know that fish sticks would be like right at the top of my list. It’s something that I could have seen maybe being dismissed as a gimmick over time, or being very reflective of the way we were eating in the 1950s. But now I’m like, ‘Maybe I should go buy some fish sticks for dinner.’ What do you think the staying power of fish sticks tells us about the future of food more broadly?

Liz Webber: So you could also flip it the other way in that fish sticks are trying to grab on to some of the future of food trends. So there’s a company called Good Catch, which is making, for lack of a better term, the Impossible fish stick. You know, it’s a plant-based food, but it’s supposed to mimic what a fish tastes like and what the texture is, you know, the same way that Impossible or Beyond is making the burgers that you know, fool you into thinking you’re actually having a burger. And then the owner of Birds Eye UK, Nomad foods, is working with a US-based company called BlueNalu to develop lab-grown fish products, including fish sticks.

Kira Bindrim: So it’s sort of like, wherever people’s eating habits are, fish sticks will be there. They’ll figure it out.

Liz Webber: For sure, yeah.

Kira Bindrim: Let me ask you a personal question, since now I’m thinking about dinner and maybe you’ll help me here. What is the best way to eat fish sticks? Like, I’m a sophisticated elder millennial over here., so I would like to make sure that’s reflected in how I take my fish sticks. So what is your your recommended recipe?

Liz Webber: Well, I am generally a fish stick purist—just have the fish sticks with a dipping sauce. But something that Gorton’s has been pushing recently that I am very tempted to try is fish stick tacos, which totally makes sense when you think about it. It really is a very similar idea of a breaded, fried fish that goes in a tortilla with various other ingredients. One quote from this Gordon’s marketing executive, which I think is just fantastic—and bear in mind, it is the marketing executive, and this quote is from the middle of 2020. He’s talking about how, you know, people who are tired of just eating regular old fish sticks, they make the fish tacos: ‘All of a sudden you feel you’ve been transported to your favorite Mexican restaurant. And that’s where we found the magic.’

Kira Bindrim: I’m transported. I mean, I’m inspired by that. I’ll try a fish stick taco.

Liz Webber. Same. In the UK, they are really big on fish finger sandwiches. It’s kind of like a just a fried fish sandwich. The fish is just in a slightly different shape. There are both high-end versions of this, as well as like the low-brow version that you would get at the local pub after a night out. And Birds Eye UK has said that one thing people have been doing during the pandemic when the pubs are closed, is making the fish finger sandwiches at home.

Kira Bindrim: I mean, the real lesson of this whole episode, I think, is that you can never have too much bread. In any scenario.

Liz Webber: I would agree with that. And fish sticks can go on anything.

Kira Bindrim: Right. One last question for you, Liz: What is your favorite fish stick fun fact? Which is harder to say than I thought. Like, if fish stick boxes had fun, interesting stuff on the back of them like cereal boxes that kids could read, what would be the factoid you would put there?

Liz Webber: So I have a fun piece of trivia that is fish stick-adjacent, but also includes a fun fact about me.

Kira Bindrim: I’ll allow it.

Liz Webber: So back in college, I was a contestant on the game show Cash Cab, if everyone remembers that. Sadly, my friends and I did not win any money and the episode that we taped did not air. But one of the questions we got wrong is now something I will never be able to forget. And the question was: Which fish stick company almost went out of business because of Mussolini? The answer is Gorton’s. In the 1920s, which obviously is decades before a fish sticks were even a twinkle in Gorton’s eye, the Italian government put in an order with Gorton’s for $1 million worth of salt cod. When it arrived in Italy, Mussolini seized the entire shipment and refused to pay. And Gorton’s almost went bankrupt.

Kira Bindrim: Wow. I’m also a little still hung up on, like, if you go in a Cash Cab and it never airs, like you just took a cab and someone asked you questions and that’s weird.

Liz Webber: I got a t-shirt.

Kira Bindrim: Okay, well there we go. But I will retain that fact, and little kids would not understand it.

Liz Webber: No, they actually wouldn’t do well on the back of…

Kira Bindrim: But you know who would do well with it? Elder millennials.

Liz Webber: Exactly.

Kira Bindrim: They’d love it. Thank you so much, Liz. This was truly fascinating. I will never look at a fish stick the same again.

Liz Webber: Thanks, Kira.

Kira Bindrim: That’s our Obsession for the week. This episode was produced by Katie Jane Fernelius. Our sound engineer is George Drake and our executive producer is Alex Ossola. The theme music is by Taka Yasuzawa and Alex Suguira. Special thanks to Liz Webber in New York.

If you liked what you heard, please leave a review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you’re listening. Tell your friends about us! Yes, I am fishing for new subscribers. Then head to qz.com/obsession to sign up for Quartz’s Weekly Obsession email and browse hundreds of interesting backstories.