What are “Pre-Cut” Fillets?

What are “Pre-Cut” Fillets?

A large amount of the fish that is consumed today is “pre-cut” overseas product. “Pre-Cut” means that the fish was filleted by hand or machine (machine usually) before being imported into the states for sale. The reason this method is becoming increasingly popular is because of the price. Shipping just fillets instead of whole fish cuts down on freight costs. Also overseas labor is cheaper, so the cost in the product is far less. This allows for an incredibly cheap product compared to a fillet cut off of a whole fish here in the states. For example, the market on pre-cut Black Grouper fillet is about $6.50/lb. today. The market for whole Florida Black Grouper today is $4.50. We get a yield of 45% on Black Grouper. By yield, I mean if the whole fish weighs 20 pounds and you multiply that by 45% that gives you 9 pounds of fillet. So, by dividing the yield by the cost in the product, we find that Florida Black Grouper fillet cut off the fish here in our facility has a cost of $10/lb. So if you are an owner of a fish house and all of your customers are begging you for cheaper prices, and you want to maximize profit, which item would you choose? Most people would sell the pre-cut fillet. Why not? It’s much cheaper and you don’t have to pay any labor for processing. Harris Seafood does not sell pre-cut fillet unless our customers specifically ask for it. The next paragraphs will tell you why.

Salmon and Grouper are the most common fresh (if you can call it that) pre-cut fillets imported into the country. There are multiple species of frozen pre-cut fish- mainly tilapia, catfish, and swai. There are many quality issues when it comes to “pre-cut” products. The old adage “You get what you pay for” could not be more true here.

The first thing I learned about checking quality on fish in the restaurants was to look at the eyes and the gills of the fish. If the eyes are clear, and the gills are red, and there’s no foul smell, it is usually a fresh high quality fish. You don’t have that option with pre-cut fillet. There is no whole fish to look at. All you can look at is fillets stacked on top of each other in a bag. Trying to gauge how old that product is isn’t easy. Especially with some of the other tricks like gassing, dying, chemicals, injecting, etc. we will discuss in another article. There’s also no fish to look at to make sure you are truly getting what you are paying for. It’s hard to substitute inferior species for salmon, but relatively easy to do for Grouper. Tripletail, Corvina, Kingclip, Rockfish, Wreckfish, and a multitude of other species of fish are used for Grouper substitutes all of the time. Restaurants can get hefty fines and bad press, not to mention dissatisfied customers, if they are selling a substitute and calling it Grouper and they get caught for it. Even if their wholesaler invoiced them for Grouper and it wasn’t their fault. At Harris Seafood, our customers don’t have to worry about that. What is on the invoice is what they get. That’s because every pound of fresh fish we sell, unless the customer specifically asks for pre-cut, is hand cut off of the whole fish that morning.

Another problem with pre-cut fillets is that a lot of the time they come slightly frozen. This problem is very common with pre-cut salmon fillets. The majority of salmon consumed at restaurants and bought in stores is pre-cut. So, basically salmon fillet is a huge commodity that needs to be controlled and rationed. How can you do that with a perishable item? You have to slow down the decay process and extend its shelf life. So they freeze it. Freezing changes the molecular composition of fish and tends to extract some of the moisture of the fillet, which in turn changes its’ natural flavor. They might hold the product barely below freezing, but it is still enough. They have the timing down so well that usually it is completely thawed by the time the wholesaler receives it.

Again, the only time we sell pre-cut fillet is when a customer asks for it. The salmon fillet we sell that is cut off the whole fish is sushi grade, never been frozen, and full of flavor. We can look at the eyes and the gills of the fish and tell you how many days the fish has been out of the water. We also know that the fillet has not been adulterated. One problem we have had with our salmon fillet is that customers refuse it because it doesn’t look like what they are used to. Almost all of my competitors use pre-cut salmon for all of their salmon fillet. Pre-cut salmon fillet is cut and pin-boned by a machine. It comes out very clean cut and neat. It also can be adulterated at this stage to make it look better. We don’t have that option because we are cutting our fish by hand. The fillets look different because they are not adulterated and a human cannot cut with the accuracy of a machine.

And finally, the major problem with pre-cut fillet is its’ shelf life, or lack thereof. The shelf life of fish changes drastically each time you put a knife to it. The first time you put a knife to a whole fish (gutting it) actually extends the shelf life of the fish. In that state it can hold its’ freshness the longest. This is how some of our fish is shipped (Snapper, Grouper, Salmon). The way the other species we use are shipped is called H & G (Headed and Gutted). This is done usually for large fish to cut down on shipping costs and because the head is not marketable (Tuna, Swordfish, Mahi, Seabass). This allows outside elements to come in contact with a small portion of raw flesh which shortens the shelf life minimally. The next step would be shipping pre-cut fillets. The fillets are completely exposed to outside elements which drastically speeds up the decay process and shortens the shelf-life. The shelf life can only become shorter by portioning the fillet. Our fillets cut off of the whole fish are exposed to outside elements starting the day our customers receive their delivery. Most restaurants sell the product that night, but if they wanted, they could probably hold the product for many days. It is at the peak of freshness. Pre-cut fillets on the other hand might have been exposed to outside elements for weeks or months if slightly frozen. Most cases of pre-cut fillet don’t even get inspected by the wholesaler for quality. They just get delivered to the restaurant in the same box they were received in. So there is much more of a chance for a restaurant to get very old product if they are buying pre-cut fillets. And even if the pre-cut fillets are only a few days old, they still will decay much quicker than a fillet cut off the fish that morning.

The best way to tell if you are getting pre-cut fillets is to look at the price. If you are getting Grouper fillet for less than $9.95/lb. it is either not grouper or it is pre-cut grouper. Salmon fillet cut off the whole fish is usually $0.75 more per pound than the market price. Here are some visual indicators of pre-cut fillets: a large amount of slimy liquid surrounding the product, wrinkles in the flesh from wrinkles in the bag it has been packed in, drab color or unnatural bright color, curled edges, packed in a Styrofoam box, and the flesh is breaking up and separating at the bloodline or fat lines. More than likely it will have an unpleasant odor as well. A high quality natural fillet will be the opposite of this. The moisture presence on the fillet will be minimal and have the feel of water, not slime, it won’t have wrinkles, the color will be natural, packed in a new bag or plastic box, lays flat, smells fresh, and the fillet will be firm and showing no separations in the flesh.

I have provided pictures below to further identify the differences between these products. So, next time you are receiving fish at your restaurant or you are sitting down to eat fish at a restaurant, ask if it is “pre-cut” fillet. You might think twice if they tell you it is.