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Top Species: Pollock

Availability of the versatile fish to benefit processors, surimi-seafood manufacturers

By Joanne Friedrick
November 05, 2011

Plentiful, value priced and accepted by most consumers for its mild taste and flaky texture, pollock garners few complaints from those who sell, cook and eat it.

Harvested primarily in Alaska and Russia, pollock production has increased in the past two years, according to a McDowell Group data briefing shared by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.

In 2010, Russia harvested 1.58 million metric tons, while Alaska fishermen brought in 888,000 metric tons. For this year, the total allowable catch (TAC) for Russia was set at 1.649 million metric tons and 1.367 million metric tons for Alaska. The report notes that if the 2011 TAC is reached and Japan and Korea continue to harvest pollock, there should be more product on the market this year than any year since 2000.

Because pollock has been plentiful, it is also priced attractively for the consumer market. When measured against other proteins such as beef, pork and chicken, only chicken has a lower per-pound average price. In August, skinless, boneless pollock fillets were selling for $3.30 per pound vs. $4.49 for a pound of beef, $3.58 for a pound of pork chops and $2.30 for boneless chicken breasts.

“We see pollock as the best value in the seafood industry” as well as “flexible” when it comes to creating new products, says Jim LaBelle, VP-marketing for Fishery Products International in Danvers, Mass.

Because it is a cheaper species than cod or salmon, LaBelle says FPI decided to add pollock to its line of FireRoasters flame-seared fillets for foodservice. “We introduced this initially with cod, salmon and tilapia,” he says, “but there were some segments of foodservice that wanted something more affordable.”

The fillets, which are available in Southwest and Citrus Peppercorn preparations, appeal to the more budget-minded sectors such as healthcare and education. And the flavors have appeal across the board, he says, and reflect what is taking place at the restaurant level.

What also makes roasted pollock appealing, he says, is the “health halo” that surrounds seafood in general and foods prepared with less fat, sodium and carbohydrates.

“Pollock is one of our top three species in sales,” says LaBelle, “especially because of the price.”

For instance, the Citrus Peppercorn pollock wholesales for $3.95 a pound, while that same preparation with tilapia wholesales for $5.30 a pound, says LaBelle.

Restaurant prospers with pollock

Pollock has also appealed to Ralph Rubio, founder of the Rubio’s chain of Mexican restaurants. Fish tacos made with pollock are the company’s signature dish based on a fish taco he first ate in San Felipe, Mexico. Although those tacos were made with whatever was the fresh catch of the day, after some experimentation Rubio found beer-battered pollock worked best.

“I experimented with red snapper and shark,” he says, but the snapper was too “fishy” for some tastes and the shark presented cartilage problems. “Then someone suggested pollock or cod, and I’ve been using pollock since 1984.”

The mild and nicely textured pollock, says Rubio, “is a great carrier for the beer batter,” which is flavored with mustard, oregano and pepper.

And, he adds, after all these years, pollock has been plentiful for the most part.

Rubio’s goes through 2.5 million pounds of pollock a year as the United States’ leading purveyor of fish tacos, he says. “We sell 34,000 fish tacos a day” out of 200 restaurants in California, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado and Utah.

The price of pollock has risen over the years, says Rubio, but at a lesser rate than many products. When he began, he says, IQF once-frozen pollock sold for $1.20 a pound and now it’s at $2.90. “That’s still pretty affordable for what we do,” he says. And his price to consumers has risen from $1 in 1984 per taco to $2.79 today.

Rubio says few customers question where the fish comes from or even what fish is used. For those who want a different flavor profile, Rubio has added fish tacos made with mahimahi and wild Alaska salmon. And he’s currently experimenting with new sauces for his pollock-based tacos — one with red chile sauce and another using a sweet sesame soy.

The surimi side of the market

While pollock is available in fillet form for users such as FPI and Rubio’s, it is also a key ingredient in surimi seafood, which is used for analog crab and lobster. Robert Bleu, president of Shining Ocean in Sumner, Wash., says there have been no issues with supply or price for the Alaska pollock that he uses. What has been more of an issue for the product, he says, is the cost of the other ingredients.

“The different quality grade prices [for pollock] used to travel together closely linked, but in the last three years they have each gone on their own trajectory, some with big changes, others not so much,” says Bleu. “Overall, we have gotten some minor price relief recently, which has helped counterbalance ugly price spikes we have received in other ingredients, particularly starches.” Bleu says potato starch prices rose 70 percent in 2010 and wheat starch was up 45 percent.

Shining Ocean sells to three market segments — retailers, restaurant distributors and processors — who use the surimi seafood as an ingredient in salads, spreads and stuffings, says Bleu.

In terms of product development, Bleu says the company’s growth has been in value-added products. “We are launching some new SKUs of value products and refreshing labels of our other value products,” he explains.

Trans-Ocean Products, based in Bellingham, Wash., is seeing steady growth for its surimi-seafood products, says Lou Shaheen, VP-sales and marketing.

“The demand is there, and we’re still growing, it’s just not double-digit growth,” he says.

What is occurring, however, is a renaissance for one of the early forms of surimi seafood. While flake-style has been the top-seller for the past 15 years, Shaheen says there has been a new emphasis on the stick-style.

“We did a focus group and found people were using the sticks as a healthy snack,” says Shaheen. In response, the company introduced its Seafood Snackers, which are 3-ounce surimi seafood sticks. The product category has always been more popular in Europe than in America, he says, and the use of surimi seafood in a popular French weight-loss program, called the Dukan Diet, has raised sales there.
France is one of the top three export destinations for Alaska pollock surimi, according to the McDowell Group report. In 2010, 229.9 million pounds of surimi were exported to Japan, South Korea and France.

The health-conscious consumer is the target for Trans-Ocean, says Shaheen, who notes the company is focused more on retail than foodservice right now. The company’s surimi seafood is fortified with omega-3 fatty acids and is naturally low fat and high in protein, he says.


Contributing Editor Joanne Friedrick lives in Portland, Maine

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