Omega Protein balances the bottom line and bottom feeders

Kelly Dawson
January 31, 2018
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It doesn’t take daily meditation, or an escape to the woods, or even a famous Disney song to know that every human is connected to the Earth.

That is a fact that can’t be learned, but rather an inherent understanding that comes from the endless experiences that are gathered up in a single lifetime.

There’s the feel of grass on our bare feet and the wind on our cheeks, and cool water across our fingertips and the brush of leaves on our arms. It’s any time we go outside. And that feeling of connection to nature, that undisputed fact that everything is in it together, is rightly encompassed in a never-ending circle: the nutrients that grow plants and animals also powers us. So it only makes sense that we prescribe to nutrients that give back to the planet’s species, because it just so happens to be what’s best for our health, too.

That’s the philosophy behind Omega Protein, a century-old company devoted to providing quality ingredients to the food we eat, the supplements we take, and the animal feed we buy. These ingredients have been scientifically proven to be beneficial for animals and humans alike — including essential fatty acids, protein components like fishmeal, and specialty oils like omega-3 — and this company desires to harvest them in ways that protect the overall circle of life.

It’s a lofty goal that has plenty of challenges since doing well by human needs so often comes at the expense of what’s right for the environment. Omega Protein finds itself in that balance between bottom lines and essential bottom feeders, working to uphold a company legacy and that of a very impressive fish. And, as it starts on another chapter of its own under Cooke Inc., an acquisition that went through at the end of last year, Omega Protein is working to meet that goal under emerging circumstances.

Fish out of water

In order to understand Omega Protein, it’s important to grasp the most crucial aspect of its business. It isn’t necessarily its headquarters in Houston or its seven manufacturing plants, although those things are important. It has something to do with the more than one thousand worldwide employees under its umbrella, although it outnumbers them by even larger groups. It’s a fish called menhaden, also known as the bunker to some, which is the basis for the nutrient-based products that Omega Protein manufactures for animals and humans.

Many years before Omega Protein was founded, and even before America had a name itself, there were stories of this fish in large, uniform schools swimming in waterways observed by the country’s European settlers. This silvery fish stretches only about a foot long and weighs about a pound as a grown adult, and yet it is often credited for uplifting the nation’s early days of growth and propelling its 20th-century industry. In fact, schools of it prompted the early founder of Omega Protein to move the company from the southern coast of Maine to Reedville, Virginia on the Chesapeake Bay in the years after the Civil War. At the time, so much of the fish could be found there, and that factory has been in continuous operation for the last 140 years.

Much like the larger circle of life, schools of menhaden feed many creatures — including whales, tuna, and gulls, for instance — while also acting as vital filters. The food that menhaden eat, phytoplankton, can’t be eaten by other sea animals. So by ridding water of it and other algae-forming particles by an estimate of four gallons per minute by each adult, menhaden clean the water so that more sunlight and oxygen reach below the surface. This, in turn, makes plants grow to feed and protect other animals. Given all of this, menhaden is quite a creature, in and out of the water.

Omega Protein’s longstanding challenge has been to protect this fish’s important place in our ecosystem while also meeting its own standards. So let’s discuss more of what the company does with menhaden once the fish is in its possession.

Part of your world

So how exactly does Omega Protein, the East Coast’s largest industrial harvester of menhaden, use this fish? It breaks the company into two parts, human nutrition, and animal nutrition, to cover its wide range of services. The human nutrition segment of the company is controlled under a separate name, Bioriginal, which has a headquarters in Canada. It oversees its supplements and health foods including those with omega-3 properties, essential fatty acids, nutraceutical ingredients, and dairy proteins. Products include the likes of coconut oil, flaxseed, krill oil, and whey.

In order to catch the menhaden, Omega Protein relies on a fleet of large vessels, smaller boats, and spotter planes. Spotter planes help locate schools of menhaden in the federally-regulated waters off the East and Gulf Coasts, which cut down on the fuel that vessels need to find them. Once the fish are caught by smaller boats, they are transferred to the vessels’ refrigerated holds and sent whole to the processing centers.

At those centers, the fish is cooked and pressed for their oils (undergoing further steps that purify and concentrate it), and the remains are transported to dryers that turn them into fish meal. The company’s dairy products derive from family farms in Wisconsin, which includes organic cow and goat whey as well as artisan cheeses. Lastly, nutraceuticals undergo an extensive quality assurance program that tests the vegetable and fruit extracts for proper makeup and overall safety before they become part of a supplement.

The animal nutrition aspect of the company focuses on three essential products: fish meal, fish oil, and fish solubles. These items, which undergo the same aforementioned fishing process as what’s found in human products, are fed to animals in farms on land and sea. So, anything from pigs and horses to crustaceans and aquatic plants can receive these three options.

Throughout the animal and human nutrition processes, Omega Protein works to minimize its impact. The number of menhaden it can catch per year is regulated by state and federal laws, and vessels are equipped with EPA-approved Tier 2 engines to reduce its gas emissions. Furthermore, decommissioned vessels are donated to states and turned into artificial “reefs,” and heat waste that’s emitted from the drying chamber is “recaptured” to preheat it for another round.

It’s all part of a constant cycle of capturing, processing, and recycling so that products meant to make human and animal organs healthier — omega-3, for instance, is noted for lowering the risk of heart disease and dementia — can do so on a routine basis. Omega Protein’s products are exported to more than 40 countries, and with its recent sale to Cooke’s, a further reach can be on the way.

Catch of the day

Cooke Inc., a company based in Canada’s New Brunswick province, acquired Omega Protein in December 2017 as the largest acquisition in its 30-year history. The seafood supplier has control of its vessels, shipyard, manufacturing plants, and planes, and will merge Omega Protein’s North American industry with its worldwide operations.

Cooke Inc. has salmon farming facilities in the U.S., Scotland, Canada, and Chile, as well as seabass and seabream farms in Spain. It also has worldwide wild fisheries, too. So, Cooke hopes that this expansion grows its supply chain while boosting its overall prestige in the world’s seafood production.

While it’s too early to say how this change will shake out, it is an important shift in Omega Protein’s future. As the company focuses on global human and animal nutrition, a circle-of-life process rife with pros and cons, it’s facing its own type of disruption. That may be the case with all cycles, natural or learned, after all. Everything is ripe for change.

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