WOMEN IN BUSINESS: A real fish story – Chemical engineer’s persistence opens up a new market for the fish industry

TRAVERSE CITY – Jill Bentgen got involved in the fish industry in a roundabout way. But she made a tremendous difference when she got there.

As a chemical engineer working in Cincinnati, she visited her hometown of St. Ignace and found that friends of hers in the fish-processing business were being stilted by the short shelf-life of their fish products. The culprit? Clostridium Botulinum, a deadly micro-organism that in the 1960s and ’70s had contaminated vacuum-sealed smoked fish, killing several consumers.

The state reacted by outlawing vacuum-packaging of fish because the lack of oxygen in such packaging is exactly what Botulinum thrives on. Instead, smoked fish was limited to packaging in freezer paper or plastic wrap–which meant a shelf-life of two weeks and being unable to transport it long distances.

“The result was no product development on packaged, ready-to-eat fish products,” Bentgen explained. “You could only smoke an entire fish and it would spoil in two weeks.”

From her career at Proctor & Gamble, she knew how to tackle state legislation. What she didn’t know how to do was smoke or package fish. Her focus became perfecting the smoked whitefish fillet.

“No one had done it before,” she said. “There was lots of literature on smoking salmon, but nothing on whitefish. It took a year and a half to make it look and taste right.”

The next step was perfecting the packaging. It took just as long to work with the state Department of Agriculture to change the regulations on fish fillet packaging. To do so, Bentgen had to organize safety tests and compile safety data from national experts in the industry.

The old law dictated that salmon, whitefish and lake trout had to be smoked at 180 degrees Fahrenheit and held there for 30 minutes, with a 5 percent salt content. Through Bentgen’s work, the new regulations (effective in 1997) dictated 145 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes and 3.5 percent salt.

But the biggest impact was the addition of a variance option on the packaging of fish fillets. With sufficient safety data on smoking, storage and packaging methods, the Ag Department will now grant a variance on fillet packaging. A variance for the use of vacuum packaging doubles the shelf-life of fillets–4 weeks–and opens up a whole new market for the fish industry.

“There was vacuum-packaged fish being shipped into Michigan from states like New York and Maine by mail order, but there was no one in Michigan who had tried it–the regulations wouldn’t let them,” Bentgen noted. “When the new regulations came out, it evened the playing field with other states. Minnesota and Wisconsin have also updated their regulations based on the more recent safety data.”

It also changed Bentgen’s life. She had come back to Michigan, after her husband retired, in hopes of purchasing a commercial bakery. “The more I got into it, the more I thought it had a lot of potential,” she explained. “I was surprised that no one had looked at changing the regulations, and there was a lot of opportunity in it.”

Now, Bentgen operates Mackinac Straits Fish Co. in Traverse City. The five products under Mackinac’s hull are: three smoked whitefish products: a fillet, sausage (“Lake Links”) and spread (“Whitecaps”); and two smoked Lake Trout products (a spread and fillet).

“I may have the only variance in Michigan,” Bentgen said. “It allows you to develop a different kind of product. The fillets have a much cleaner, lighter flavor than a whole fish. And they are ready to eat–no bones to pick out.”

As a wholesaler, Mackinac Straits Fish Co. distributes in Traverse City to Folgarelli’s, Mary’s Kitchen Port, Prevo’s, Oleson’s, Maxbauer’s, L’Chayim Deli, Carlson’s Fish Market. One of her largest customers is American Spoon Foods in Traverse City, Petoskey, Harbor Springs and Charlevoix. BIZNEWS