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November 1, 2006

High-tech process "shucks" Maine lobster, competes with Canadians

by Sandra Dinsmore

Five years ago John Hathaway came up with one of his many ideas. He had started a lobster shack in Kennebunkport -- the building was only 600 square feet -- to have all five of his children together in summer and in so doing discovered that people didn't like, as he said, "the mess and bother of getting the lobster out of the shell." They much preferred having Hathaway's sons, then nine and eleven, shuck their lobsters for them and proved it by ordering dishes that offered lobster shell-free.

In short, Hathaway took the idea of providing people with pre-shucked lobster, researched it and found that the government had been looking for ways to extend the shelf life of foods without freezing or irradiation for years. He discovered there are only two companies in the world that make machines that use extremely high water pressure to process foods and give them extended shelf life. (The government applied that process to its MREs, or meals ready to eat, for the military.)

About a year and a half ago, Hathaway learned that this process also separated shellfish meat from the shell and that several Canadian lobster processors were using this system. Hathaway came up with the money for a machine. He started the new business by qualifying for a block grant from the state (which had a matching fund) and through private investors. Then, instead of having an architect design a fancy, state-of-the-art building on the coast, he decided to go back to his roots. He took a space in the nearly empty, old Etonic sneakers factory in Richmond, a slightly down-at-the-heels river town in central Maine between Wiscasset and Augusta, an area with people needing work. In April 2006, he opened his new company, Shucks Maine Lobster.

According to Maine Lobster Promotion Council executive director Kristin Millar, John Hathaway is the only processor in the United States using this high-pressure water-immersion method for processing raw, fresh Gulf of Maine lobster. In fact, because other lobster processors freeze their processed product or cook it first, and because Hathaway puts his processed lobster through the high pressure process a second time, bringing the pressure up to 87,000 psi, which removes any lingering pathogens and bacteria after it's been shucked, washed, weighed, and sealed, and, without using heat, extends its shelf life to an astonishing 30 days. Millar said, "To my knowledge, he's the only processor of raw, fresh lobster meat in the world."

Fast-forward to Sept. 27, when Governor Baldacci and other American and European officials came to Richmond to congratulate Hathaway for his accomplishment.

"The whole purpose of what Shucks is doing is to keep those lobsters and the jobs that go with them here in Maine," Baldacci said, noting that as much as 60 percent of Maine lobster is processed in Canada and then resold, much of it in Maine and other states, as a Product of Canada.

Hathaway, a Maine native, responded, "The key is to add value to our natural resource. If we can add value to them here in Maine rather than shipping them off to be processed in Canada, then everybody in the Maine lobster industry will win."

Hathaway's operation combines the technology of a machine costing over $1 million with the simplicity of plain old manual labor. The machine kills the lobster almost instantly and separates the membrane that attaches the muscle to the shell of oysters, clams, lobster, and other shellfish by subjecting it to enormously high water pressure. Manual labor is essential to remove the raw meat from the shell. It really can't be done any other way: lobster meat is so delicate, it requires the gentleness and dexterity of the human hand. Fishery Products International (FPI), based in Danvers, MA, markets similar products processed by Ocean Choice, a seafood processor based on Prince Edward Island. Senior Vice President of Technical Services and Manufacturing Michael Sirois, from Skowhegan, who earned his Master's degree in Seafood Technology from the University of Maine and is on the board of the Lobster Institute, explained that these high pressure processing machines euthanize the lobster very quickly through disrupting cell function by breaking chemical bonds. One of the beneficial effects in lobster is that this separates the meat from the shell. As Sirois explained, lobsters do not have a central nervous system. "They can't feel pain," he said. Not everyone agrees with this theory, but it should be noted that those who think the process is not as humane as it is said to be are in direct competition for the lobster market.

Whole Foods, a widely-known company of organic foods made from humanely treated animals, did extensive research from November to June 2006 on lobster handling and processing methods, and approved only the hydrostatic (or hyperbaric, take your pick) pressure processing system used by Clearwater for processing live lobster. But only Hathaway's Avure 215L, an improvement over Clearwater's Avure, has the power to raise the water pressure from 40,000 to 87,000 lbs. per square inch (psi), which, in the second cycle after the lobster has been packed, removes any pathogens and bacteria, and extends the shelf life of the fresh lobster beyond anything previously imagined.

The large cement-floored room that Hathaway calls the kitchen and that houses the Avure 215L can only be entered by those wearing hairnets over their heads and smaller beard and moustache nets, and after stepping into a tray filled with sanitizing fluid. Workers also wear the kind of gloves worn by doctors and dentists.

The company buys lobster from different dealers up and down the coast. Some dealers truck the lobsters to Richmond; the company picks up others. Either way, the lobsters arrive at the kitchen in their usual bad humor.

A shucker -- Hathaway refers to his workers as shuckers -- places 200 lbs. of live lobster into a pierced tube, which is lowered into a water-filled chamber in the machine, an Avure Technologies 215L, a hyperbaric pressure processing (hpp) system. After a few seconds of being subjected to high water pressure, the lobster dies. Hathaway said, "The lobster can live in pressure up to 18,000 psi. As soon as the pressure rises above that, the lobster is killed instantly. The whole cycle takes about six minutes, but the pressure is only one minute." The pressure rises to 40,000 lbs. (psi), which Avure claims is more than three times the deepest caverns in the ocean. At the end of the cycle, the lobsters emerge from the machine defunct and ready to be shelled.

A shucker carries a container of lobsters to a table. The day the plant was open to the public, Tony Lagasse of Lewiston and Matt Fleury of Richmond were at the table. One snapped the tail off the lobster and shucked the shell from the tender tail meat; the other, after gently cracking the shell with a hammer, gently stripped away the claw and knuckle shells and carefully placed the delicate claw meat in a tray. A third shucker snipped off the legs and put them in a pile to be machine-shucked. Doris Malkoch, of Richmond, as she weighed tails, said, "We're cross-trained to do everything."

Malkoch explained that after washing the lobster, the shuckers grade the tails by size and pack them five or six to a bag, depending on the grade. They then cool the bagged tails on ice. Everything else gets packed in one-pound bags and cooled. Finally the bags filled with the lobster meat go back into the machine again to remove any bacteria that might have entered while processing and to remove the air in the bag. When asked how that's done, Hathaway replied, "That's kind of the magic of the machine: it takes the air out of the bag. The water pressure removes it."

He looks at his business "as a complement to the hard-shell business" and explained that in order to find 30,000 hard shell lobsters that have enough strength to survive the multiple handling that goes into shipping them overseas, a dealer has to buy 90,000 lbs. of lobster. "What do they do with the other 60,000 lbs.," he asked rhetorically, "put them on a truck to Canada or find ways to add value here in Maine? Our purpose is to add value to shedders so we don't have to ship them over the border to Canada."

But in addition to Maine's other two processors who shell their lobster by cooking it to separate the fascia from the shell -- Cozy Harbor Seafood and Portland Shellfish -- over the border lie Hathaway's competitors, three processors that use Avure or Correa high pressure processing systems. According to Nick De Pinto, Business Development Manager for Avure Technologies, who flew to Maine for Hathaway's opening ceremony, Clearwater, based in Nova Scotia and using an Avure lower level of pressure, "Fresher Under Pressure" hpp system, sells raw frozen lobster meat. Seafood 2000, based on Prince Edward Island (PEI) and using a lower level of pressure Avure hpp system, sells raw frozen lobster meat, though it declined an invitation to discuss its products. Ocean Choice International (OCI), based on PEI, according to president Blaine Sullivan, has used a Correa hyperbaric pressure system since 2004 and sells raw frozen, raw whole frozen, cooked frozen and cooked whole lobster. Paturel, based in New Brunswick, sells cooked fresh lobster meat.

Hathaway has high hopes for this new process. In fact, everyone involved does. Some in the lobster industry feel less positive about Hathaway's chances in this highly competitive field, but as the only Maine company using hyperbaric pressure processing and the only one in the world producing fresh, raw lobster meat, he's hoping this will give him the edge he needs to succeed. Elafood, based in France, the European Union's largest scallop and live lobster distributor, gave him a head start by signing a contract, witnessed by Governor Baldacci on Sept. 27, giving it exclusive European rights to Hathaway's processed, fresh, certified Maine lobster meat. q

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Sandra Dinsmore

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