The artisanal fisherman, fishing for a few hours and returning to sell his catch on the beach while the fish is still alive or very fresh, does not need a complicated quality assurance system. His customers know very well the quality of the fish, and most often the fish are caught, sold and consumed within the same day. However, no food production, processing or distribution company can be self-sustained in the medium- or long-term, unless the issues of quality are properly recognized and addressed and an appropriate quality system is put into operation in the processing establishment. The need for effective quality assurance systems is further underlined by the fact that global demand for fish and fishery products is continuously growing while production level is approaching its maximum with limited possibilities for future increase. The need for improved utilization of present harvest including a reduction of fish wasted due to spoilage is therefore a strong incentive to introduce an effective quality assurance system. Further benefits are increasing efficiency, increasing employee satisfaction and lower costs to the processing industry.

Traditionally, fish processors have regarded quality assurance as the responsibility of the regulatory governmental agency, and the means used by these agencies have been the formulation of food laws and regulations, inspection of facilities and processes and final product testing. The processors' own efforts have in many cases been based entirely on final product testing. Such a system is costly, ineffective, provides no guarantee of quality but merely a false sense of security.

At this point, a distinction needs to be drawn between Quality Assurance and Quality Control. Unfortunately, these two terms have been used indiscriminately and the difference between them has become blurred. According to International Standards (ISO 8402), Quality Assurance (QA) is "all those planned and systematic actions necessary to provide adequate confidence that a product or service will satisfy given requirements for quality". In other words, QA is a strategic management function which establishes policies, adapts programmes to meet established goals, and provides confidence that these measures are being effectively applied.

Quality Assurance is the modern term for describing the control, evaluation and audit of a food processing system. The primary function is to provide confidence for both management and the ultimate customer that the company is supplying products with the desired quality which has been specified in trade agreements between the producer and the customer. Only by having a planned QA- programme can a firm continue to succeed in supplying the customer with the desired products.

A large part of a quality assurance programme is built around Quality Control (QC). QC is "the operational techniques and activities that are used to fulfil requirements for quality" (ISO 8402), i.e., a tactical function which carries out the programmes established by the QA. Thus quality control is quite often equated with "inspection" or measurements within a quality assurance programme. Thus QC means to regulate to some standard, most often associated with the processing line, i.e., specific processes and operations. QC is the tool for the production worker, to help him operate the line in accordance with the predetermined parameters for any given quality level.

In contrast to the principles in traditional quality programmes relying heavily on control of end- products, a preventative strategy based on a thorough study of prevailing conditions is much more likely to provide a better guarantee of quality, and even at a reduced cost. Such a strategy was first introduced by microbiologists more than 20 years ago to increase safety of food products and is named the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) System. The principles of the HACCP system can very easily be used also in the control of other aspects of quality.

The principles of the HACCP system are now being introduced in food production in many parts of the world. One reason for this development is that a number of national food legislations today are placing full responsibility for food quality on the producer (e.g., EEC Council Directive no. 91/493/EEC) and the use of the HACCP system is required (EEC 1993, 1994).

The Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) system

The main elements of the HACCP system are:

  1. Identify potential hazards. Assess the risk (likelihood) of occurrence.
  2. Determine the Critical Control Points (CCPs). Determine steps that can be controlled to eliminate or minimize the hazards. A CCP that can completely control a hazard, is designated CCP-1, while a CCP that minimizes, but not completely controls a hazard is designated a CCP-2.
  3. Establish the criteria (tolerances, target level) that must be met to ensure that a CCP is under control.
  4. Establish a monitoring system.
  5. Establish the corrective action when CCP is not under control.
  6. Establish procedures for verification.
  7. Establish documentation and record-keeping.

For detailed information on introduction and application of the HACCP system, Huss (1994) should be consulted.

The great advantage of the HACCP system is that it constitutes a scientific and systematic, structural, rational, multi-disciplined, adaptable and cost-effective approach of preventive quality assurance. Properly applied, there is no other system or method which can provide the same degree of safety and assurance of quality, and the daily running cost of a HACCP system is small compared with a large sampling programme.

By using the HACCP concept in food processing it is possible to assure and - as all actions and measurements are recorded - to document assurance of a quality standard as specified in the product specification.

Application of the HACCP system for fresh or frozen fish production

A starting point in design and implementation of any quality programme is to achieve a complete and correct definition and description of the product. Further, it must be ensured that each and every quality attribute is included and is written such that any ambiguity is avoided. Thus the critical limits for defects such as presence of bones, pieces of skin and membranes on skinless fillets, maximum permitted short weights, etc., must be clearly stated. When this task is completed, and the processes within the operation have been considered, it is possible to identify the hazards to be controlled. A list of possible hazards and Critical Control Points in production and processing of fresh and frozen boneless fillets is given in Table 9.1.

In most presentations it is recommended that hazards are limited to safety hazards and decomposition (spoilage). However, in the present presentation commercial quality (defects) have also been included as hazards.

When all hazards, defects and Critical Control Points (CCP) have been identified, an appropriate monitoring and checking system must be established at each CCP. This includes:

  1. a detailed description of control measure, frequency of control and nomination of who is responsible
  2. establishment of critical limits for each control measure
  3. records to be kept for all actions and observations
  4. establishment of a corrective action plan.

Table 9.1 Hazards and Critical Control Points (CCP) in production and processing of fresh and frozen boneless fish fillets 

Processing flow Hazard Preventive Measure

Degree of control

LIVE FISH Contamination (chemicals, enteric pathogens) biotoxins Avoid fishing in contaminated  areas and areas where biotoxins are prevalent CCP-2
CATCH HANDLING Growth of bacteria
Gaping in fillets
Short handling time
Avoid rough handling 
CHILLING Growth of bacteria Low temperature CCP-1
ARRIVAL OF RAW MATERIAL AT FACTORY Substandard quality entering processing Ensure reliable source (HACCP-plan onboard or  list of approved suppliers)
Sensory evaluation
CHILLING Growth of bacteria (deterioration) Ensure low temperature CCP-1

Pieces of skin, bones and membranes left on fillet
Visible parasites left on fillet

Proper setting of machinery
Instructions of personnel
Ensure light intensity on candling table
Frequent change of personnel


Short weights/over weights
Deterioration during (fresh/frozen) storage
Ensure accuracy of scales
Ensure adequate packaging material and method (e.g., vacuum)
All processing steps Growth of bacteria
Contamination (enteric bacteria)
Short processing time
Factory hygiene/sanitation water quality
CHILLING/FREEZING -STORAGE Deterioration Ensure correct (low) temperature  CCP-1

A precise and detailed description of all CCPs is not possible as the individual and local situation may vary. However, some general points are considered as follows:

LIVE FISH - before being caught. The hazards are presence of biotoxins and contamination with chemicals and/or enteric pathogens:

  1. control measures are monitoring of the environment (fishing areas) for pollution and presence of biotoxins. The government will be responsible for this activity in most countries and regular surveys should be carried out
  2. critical limits should be set by national governments
  3. results of surveys should be published at regular intervals
  4. corrective action is restricted fishing in grossly polluted areas

CATCH HANDLING - hazards are growth of bacteria (causing histamine formation and/or decomposition), discoloration and gaping in fillets:

  1. control measures are restricted time for catch handling (time from catch to chilling) and visual check that crew are following prescribed procedures to avoid rough handling. The control should be continuous and the skipper or first mate on deck is responsible
  2. time for catch handling is limited to max 3 h
  3. a detailed log on each haul, proper marking of boxes or containers for identification of lot, time (day and hour) for catch, catch handling time, deviations - if any - from prescribed procedure
  4. corrective actions are check of product (sorting) and rejection of low quality product

CHILLING - the hazard is growth of bacteria:

  1. control measures are continuous recording of temperature (automatic) or visual control of icing of the fish. The skipper or chief is responsible
  2. the critical limit for fish temperature is 1C
  3. a log on temperature and icing observations must be kept
  4. corrective action is checking of fish from period out of control, sorting and rejection of low quality fish. Identification of reason(s) for temperature out of control

ARRIVAL OF RAW MATERIAL AT FACTORY - the hazard is risk of substandard quality entering processing:

  1. control measures are check of identity of raw material, sensory assessment (visual) and control of fish temperature of all arriving raw material. Processing manager or person specially designated may be responsible
  2. no low quality fish will be accepted (company specification)
  3. a log on all daily actions and observations Must be kept
  4. rejection of low quality fish. Identify reason for low quality. Change of supplier

CHILLING - the hazard is growth of bacteria (deterioration):

  1. control measures are continuous recording (automatic) of temperatures in chill room and check on icing of fish. Accuracy of thermometer must be checked regularly against mercury-thermometers. Responsible person is the processing manager or designated person
  2. chill room temperature must be 5C
  3. a continuous log on temperatures and observations must be kept
  4. if temperatures are out of control, all products must be reinspected, sorted and low quality material rejected

PROCESSING Filleting, skinning/ trimming - the hazards are pieces of skin, bones and membranes left on fillet:

  1. control measures are daily check of machinery for correct setting. Instructions of personnel. A sample of x kilo of fillet is taken x times daily for careful visual examination. Frequency of sampling is company policy, on-line electronic control is possible (Pau and Olafsson, 1991). Line manager is responsible for the on-line control, while QC-manager is responsible for collecting and examination of samples (verification)
  2. critical limits are specified in product specification by the buyer
  3. records on all actions and observations
  4. sort and reprocess fillets with defects. Identify reason for processing out of control

Candling - the hazard is visible parasites left on fillet:

  1. control measures are continuous candling of all fillets, packaging personnel is instructed to observe for parasites. The sample taken for control of bones, membranes and skin is also checked for parasites and same person is responsible. The production manager is responsible for the on-line control while the QC manager is responsible for collecting and examination of samples (verification)
  2. critical limits may be set by buyer or by company policy. See also Codex Alimentarius and EEC regulations
  3. records on all actions and observation
  4. fillets with visible parasites are reprocessed or rejected. Adjustment of candling light. Frequent change of personnel

Weighing - the hazards are short weight or over-weight:

  1. control measures are frequent (1-2-3 times daily) check of weighing procedures, control weighing of samples and daily check of accuracy of scales. Line operator is responsible
  2. critical limits are specified by company policy or buyer
  3. daily records of all actions and observation
  4. reweighing of products processed when out of control. Identification of reason for deviation

Packaging - the hazard is spoilage in frozen storage if packaging (packaging material, vacuum) is inadequate:

  1. the processing manager must ensure daily that packaging is in agreement with product specification

All processing steps - the hazards are 1) growth of bacteria and 2) (gross) contamination by enteric pathogens:

  1. control measure for 1) is establishment of short processing time - which must be checked on a daily basis by the line manager. For control of contamination, the personal hygiene must be supervised continuously by production manager, and prescribed procedures must be followed (medical certificate, report on illness, dress, etc.). Microbiological control of water quality must be carried out on a regular basis (daily - weekly - monthly - depending on the source of water) and is the responsibility of the QC-manager. If chlorination of water is applied, the level of free chlorine must be determined on a daily basis
  2. critical limits for water quality are standards for drinking water. Limits for chlorine is 0.5 mg/l. No person with gastro-intestinal disorder must work in direct contact with unwrapped fish
  3. records on tests for water quality. Actions and observations on personal hygiene must be recorded
  4. corrective action is microbiological testing of products. Rejection of all contaminated products

CHILLING /FREEZING - the hazard is deterioration:

  1. continuous temperature control (automatic recording) or frequent check of icing. Accuracy of thermometers must be checked regularly against an accurate mercurythermometer. Foreman in charge of stores is responsible
  2. critical limits are + 1C for chilled fish and -18C for frozen fish
  3. log on all temperature readings must be kept
  4. corrective action is reinspection of fish exposed to elevated temperature - and rejection of low quality products

In order to be effective, the HACCP system needs to be applied from origin of food (catch) to consumption. In the case of fresh fish, the situation is most often that the fish change owner at the time of landing. Here, the new owner (the processor) must ensure that the fish are supplied from a reliable source (fisherman) who also applies the HACCP principles. If this is possible, the processor has the situation under control and needs only occasionally to verify the quality on arrival to the factory by checking quality (sensory evaluation) and temperature of fish on arrival. In this case it is not a critical situation and this step can be designated a Control Point (CP) only.

The situation is very different if the processor needs to buy fish from a number of unknown fishermen (auction system). This will require constant checking of fish quality on arrival to the factory in order to ensure compliance with all the requirements of the product. In this case, it is therefore a critical Control Point, and since there is still a risk of substandard quality entering the processing line, it is a CCP-2.

Most on-line control (continuous control of temperatures, quality of work, sensory quality of product) should be the responsibility of the processing manager.