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Processing and products

Advances in production

Fishery products and processing methods in Iceland were developed from a practical point of view: How to preserve the landed catch given the local conditions. Thus, drying, curing (such as shark) smoking and later salting became the traditional way of preserving the catch. The key production processes of today are: freezing, salting, drying, reduction (fish meal and fish oil), canned products and fresh products.  

Icelandic fish products are marketed all over the world. Modern transportation and logistics shape the processing sector as products can now reach a destination in the U.S.A. by air within 24 hours of catch while container vessels can deliver fresh products to the European continent within 96 hours of catch. With this fast delivery the shelf life of fresh products has been increased drastically. These developments have eroded the once important price advantage for products frozen on board vessels at sea.

Fish processing in Iceland is being transformed by increased automation. This has reduced the manual labour linked to the production as well as introduced new technologies such as “weighing before cutting”. With computer-based vision technology, irregularly shaped pieces of fish such as fish fillets can now be cut up in exactly weighted pieces. This means that fillet pieces of e.g. 150 grams can be provided for the catering or hotel industries where correct portion sizes are important. Moreover, various parts of the fillet, such as loins or tailpieces can be cut and sorted automatically.

In the pelagic sector the ratio of products for human consumption has been growing in recent years. This change rests on more efficient cooling of the catch on board the vessels. As for fish meal production, significant improvements have been introduced which has made the production more energy efficient e.g. by using renewable electricity for drying.

Despite these advances almost half of the total export of fisheries products from Iceland remains frozen products. Salted products, most of which are based on traditional processing methods established centuries ago and are primarily sold to Mediterranean countries, have somewhat declined and are currently around 10% of exported seafood value.  Dried products account for 5% of the export value while fish meal and fish oil respectively account for around 15%.

In the Icelandic fishing industry there is a clear focus on value added production where a “quantity mentality” has been replaced with a “value mentality”. This has led to raw material that was previously considered “fish waste” and discarded, such as fish livers and fish roes being utilized to the extent of what is economically sensible. Today fish viscera, fish heads, frames from filleting, fish bones, swim-bladders and fish skin are all utilized to an increasing extent. Specialized products, such as fish enzymes, chitin (from shrimp shells), fish leather for fashion items as well as specialized omega fish oils are all part of this development. The aim is clear, that all biomaterial coming from the sea is used to its full extent.

Safety and quality

Safety and quality of fishery products are interlinked whereas food safety is a prerequisite of trade. Gentle handling and adequate and immediate chilling of the fish is essential in the eventual shelf-life of a product. The basic requirements relate to freshness and quality of the raw material, hygienic handling, processing methods as well as the identity of the product. 

Every land based plant and on-board processor in Iceland must hold a valid processing license. Whilst the producer is responsible for the safety and quality of the product, the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST) is responsible for official control and has full access to all premises and documentation of Food Business Operators (FBOs). The frequency of inspections is based on a risk classification of the FBOs.

Being a member of the European Economic Area (EEA) Iceland has implemented the European Union (EU) food safety legislation. Free trade within the EEA comes with the obligation of cooperation with regulatory bodies and official inspection agencies in countries importing Icelandic seafood and for issuing certificates in line with official requirements of the importing countries outside the EEA. MAST is responsible for the safety control of fishery products imported from countries outside the European Economic Area. Accordingly, the Icelandic authorities have established border inspection posts (BIPs) to carry out this regulatory function.

Environmental monitoring

The environmental status of the marine environment is very important to Iceland. The threats to the marine environment are in major part of a global nature since it is recognized that industrial waste and pollution do not respect any marine boundaries. These are carried with atmospheric and oceanic currents which inevitably influence marine environment around Iceland.

Iceland is party to various international agreements on protection of the marine environment such as OSPAR (Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic), GPA (the Global Programme of Action for the protection of the marine environment from land-based activities), ICES (International Council of the Exploration of the Sea) and MARPOL (International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships).

While participation in various international monitoring programs for marine waters plays an important role, the regulatory monitoring of the quality of the seafood products is an essential element in safeguarding Iceland’s interests as a major food exporter.

Systematically gathered data on persistent organic pollution (POPs), heavy metals and other pollutants has revealed that Icelandic seafood contains low amounts of pollutants such as dioxins, dioxin like PCBs and pesticides. These are well below internationally recognized maximum limits. One exemption is that levels of cadmium in a few Icelandic seafood products are elevated not due to industrial  pollution but occurring naturally most likely explained by the young geology of Iceland. Great care is taken to monitor these exceptions in order to assure the safety of the consumer.


Matis Ltd. is an Icelandic Food and Biotech R&D institute operating under the Ministry of Industries and Innovation. Matís is the lead institute in Iceland for conducting food related R&D with a very strong expertise in fish and fishery products. It´s operations can be divided into applied research, development and innovation, analytical services and knowledge transfer including training and consultation. The specialized fields include biotechnology, enzyme isolation, processing technology, traceability, genetic analysis, chemical, microbiological and organoleptic analyses, physical and chemical properties of food, quality and safety of aquatic and marine catches, feed technology for aquaculture and environmental research.

Matis is a national reference laboratory (NRL) for 14 different fields according to the European food legislation related to food safety. Further, Matís investigates nutritional composition of food as well as the undesirable substances, maintaining a database for chemical composition of food on the Icelandic market as well as for exported food. The database (called ISGEM) maintains data on 45 components in about 900 foods. These include protein, fat, carbohydrates, water, vitamins, minerals, trace elements as well as the main contaminants such as mercury, lead, cadmium and arsenic. 


Europe has for long been a key market area for Icelandic seafood. The UK has for years been the biggest market of Icelandic seafood in Europe. Other major European markets are Norway, Spain, Germany and France. As for the chilled fish exports, these primarily go to the UK and other countries in northern Europe whereas Norway mainly buys fish meal and fish oil for aquaculture. Eastern Europe is a stronghold for pelagic products while salted codfish (baccalau) is popular in the Mediterranean countries.

Following World War II, America – the U.S.A. in particular – became a major market for Icelandic seafood, mainly frozen fillets. At its peak, exports to America amounted to 15% of the total fish exports but have dropped to less than 4%. Yet, exports of chilled products by airfreight to the U.S. have been increasing in recent years.

The Asian market for Icelandic seafoods has been reasonably stable, following a period of steady increase. Japan is the single most important market for Icelandic marine products in Asia, not least for various capelin products. The bulk of the Greenland halibut catch is also exported to Asia. In a historic context Asia is a relatively young market but has in recent years driving exports of exotic marine species that had been deemed as non-commercial.

Finally, a number of African countries have long been a traditional market for Icelandic seafood, especially dried and salted cod products.

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