“We guarantee the safest and most delicious seafood products caught off the Sanriku Coast in the Northern Pacific” is how Japanese seafood processor Abecho Schoten Co. Ltd. promotes itself on the website (www.abecho.co.jp). In March 2011, its plant in Ofunato, which only started production the year before, was severely hit by the tsunami that shocked Japan and the rest of the world. Five years later, the facility is fully up and running again with ultra-modern processing and packaging equipment. We spoke with Mr. Masahiro Ohata, Factory Manager, and Mr. Ryoichi Yoshida, Food Section Manager, about this dramatic event in 2011 and how their company recovered with the support of SEALPAC and its Japanese distributor Nakamura Sangyo Co. Ltd.
Waves up to 17 meters high
Abecho Schoten Co. Ltd. was founded in April 1961 by the son of a local fisherman. His goal was to use the famous water world off the Sanriku coast, known for its large variety of species, to provide high-quality seafood to the Japanese market. What started as a small fish broker is now a major group of companies involved in seafood processing, cold storage and even tourism, with approximately 650 employees in total.
In 2010, the company started a processing and packaging plant in the port of Ofunato, about 2½ hours’ drive to the North from Sendai, in the Iwate prefecture. All was running smoothly until the earthquake of 11 March 2011 with a magnitude of 9.0, the heaviest earthquake in Japanese history, followed by a devastating tsunami. As Mr. Ohata clearly remembers: “The tsunami produced enormous waves that cut right through the first floor of our building. The stains of these waves, which were up to 17 meters high, are still visible on the second floor of our refurbished building. Luckily enough, all our employees were able to escape. In the days after, those without a home were able to seek shelter inside our building, where we provided them with food.”
What followed was a long period of recovery. Supported by the Japanese government, the entire infrastructure and houses in the area had to be renewed. Abecho was able to refurbish its building, so that it could start up production again. As all equipment was destroyed, it asked for help from its long-lasting partner Nakamura Sangyo Co. Ltd., also known as Nasco. Nowadays, the factory provides work to 92 employees again and has a capacity of handling 150 tons of fresh and frozen seafood per day. Main species are pacific saury, yellowtail and pacific mackerel, all caught off the coast from Ofunato. Mr. Ohata: “Crucial in maintaining the quality of these species is temperature control. Immediately after raising the nets, the seafood is securely chilled or frozen. We even take into account the temperature variations of the sea water per season.”
As from 2012, Nasco designed and installed several new packaging lines at Abecho. At the heart of these lines is SEALPAC equipment. Not just in Ofunato, but also in its other facility in the Miyagi prefecture, located in the town of Kesennuma. Both locations currently have one SEALPAC traysealer and one SEALPAC thermoformer. In Ofunato, focus is on the packaging of small pieces of fresh seafood in a sweet sauce, which can be heated in the microwave by consumers.
SEALPAC A6 traysealer for ultimate flexibility
In order to address the needs of the Japanese market, Abecho uses a SEALPAC A6 traysealer for packaging three different tray sizes: from single portions up to family packs. The line starts with a SEALPAC AS-LS1200 servo linear denester that smoothly positions the trays on the in-feed conveyor. To run different tray sizes, only the mask and suction unit of the AS-LS1200 denester have to be exchanged. After denesting, the trays are transported towards the A6 traysealer by means of a Walking Beam. With this system, the trays are picked up by a revolving bar instead of moving on a conveyor belt. In that way, it is possible to achieve a constant high speed and still place each tray accurately in the right position.
As soon as the trays have been manually filled with pre-weighed pieces of seafood, they arrive at the filling station, where the sweet sauce is added fully automatically. The Walking Beam system ensures that further transport of the trays can take place without sauce spilling over the edge. SEALPAC’s A6 traysealer makes sure that each tray is hermetically sealed, after which they go through a metal detector and check-weigher. Last but not least, all products are pasteurized inside their tray. This allows Abecho to supply its products with a shelf life of over one year.
As Mr. Yoshida explains: “We are extremely satisfied with the flexibility of the tray-sealing line that allows us to run the different trays. SEALPAC’s quick tooling exchange system ensures that we have minimum downtime. Furthermore, the equipment is easy to clean and hardly required any maintenance or spare parts until now. By the way, the same actually applies to our SEALPAC thermoformer in the adjacent room.“
Abecho sells its products in various supermarkets (e.g. Coop) and convenience stores in the region. Mr. Ohata: “What Japanese consumers demand is convenience. As an example, each tray has two peel tabs for easy opening. Furthermore, we offer them fresh seafood products with a long shelf life that can be heated quickly and easily in their microwave, as the food needs to be easy to prepare these days.”
Although its share is not high yet, Abecho also offers seasonal seafood products through the internet. This is one of the trends that will pick up in the future. Just like the increasing demand for recyclable packaging materials. As Mr. Yoshida concludes: “After the tsunami in 2011, we have been able to re-build our business with great prospects for the future. We will continue to address the demand for convenience, for example by expanding our processing abilities. And we trust in Nasco and SEALPAC for supporting us in these activities.”