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Finfish Focus: Surimi

ASMI's pollock-marketing campaign gives analog producers a welcome boost

Steve Heddericg
November 01, 2005

While the global surimi market has remained steady at between 195 and 220 million pounds over the past few years, surimi seafood producers that are making a profit these days are those expanding their product line and aggressively marketing it.

And domestic companies have finally gotten a much-needed hand with their efforts to grow surimi seafood sales.

The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute and the Genuine Alaska Pollock Producers jointly launched a large-scale advertising campaign during the summer to bolster consumer awareness of Alaska pollock-based surimi seafood as a high-quality product.

“This is the biggest push we’ve ever done domestically for Alaska pollock surimi,” says Laura Fleming, ASMI’s public relations director. Surimi ads appeared in national newspapers as well as Bon Appetit, Cooking Light and Sunset magazines.

The campaign targets 34- to 54-year-old females with a household income of $75,000 or more who are busy, environmentally concerned and like to eat healthy foods, explains Larry Andrews, ASMI’s retail program director.

“A lot of revenue comes from Alaska pollock now,” Fleming says. “And we’re trying to bring our promotional efforts in line with both the domestic and overseas markets.”

As part of its surimi promotion, ASMI has added a link to its Web site, www.alaskaseafood.org, devoted solely to Alaska surimi seafood.

The surimi section, dubbed “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” contains recipes that substitute surimi seafood for culinary concoctions that call for shrimp, crab, lobster or scallops.

These days, consumers face a greater gamut of surimi choices in supermarkets and restaurants; from new, top-of-the-line products like Shining Ocean’s Shrimp Combo, a combination of surimi and fresh shrimp, to bland, significantly less expensive imported product and whatever lies between.

Surimi is graded by its color and gel strength, which is a measure of how well the base product will bind with other ingredients, such as water, sugar, salt, binders, starches and flavors, to form a finished analog seafood.

Because of its superior gel strength, surimi made from Alaska pollock is considered top quality. The least expensive products have the most water and the least surimi. In most cases, surimi accounts for about half the ingredients in seafood analogs.

“Each type of surimi has a niche of its own, and, depending on the end product, you get exactly what you pay for,” says Chris Limberg, national sales manager at Harbor Seafood, an importer and distributor in New Hyde Park, N.Y.

“The lower end, for example, is foreign. We believe our brand is the best for the price because we always produce consistency. That’s why we’re concerned with the raw material. It has to be consistent.”

Short on raw material
U.S. factory trawlers and shore-based processors produce, on average, about 150,000 metric tons of surimi pollock a year. While harvests remain fairly constant, demand has risen for pollock as raw material for making surimi.

Mike Faris, president of Shining Ocean/Kanimi in Sumner, Wash., says prices for raw product have risen perhaps as much as 25 percent in the past year because inventory has dropped.

“Instead of making surimi paste, the manufacturers are making more money by filleting the pollock,” Faris says.

“When that happens, the price for the raw material goes up, and then the price of the finished product has to go up,” Harbor Seafood’s Limberg adds. “The price goes up, and consumption goes down.

“At that point the consumer may look for another source of protein. Instead of a seafood salad they may change to a chicken salad. You have to look at maintaining the value of the seafood.”

“With surimi, you have to be conscious of the product you’re buying because it affects the product you’re producing,” notes Pete Cardone, president of Harbor Seafood. “You get out of it what you put into it.”

Harbor Seafood, in the surimi business for 13 years, markets an analog seafood product primarily under its Oyster Bay label. The flaked surimi seafood is sold as a 2.5-pound foodservice pack for about $1.25 a pound, Cardone says. The company produces under private labels, too.

Harbor Seafood plans to expand its line and is testing a lobster surimi product that would carry the Oyster Bay brand. Cardone is lining up a promotional effort at national and local levels and is targeting both foodservice and retail sales.

“Our goal is to roll it out at the International Boston Seafood Show in the spring,” Cardone says. “For most people, Jan. 1 is the beginning of the year. In the seafood business, the Boston show is the beginning of the year.”

Though new analog products are being developed, suppliers are finding it a challenge to generate buyer interest and hold the bottom line in the face of global competition.

Horrible margins

“The market is not as exciting as it used to be; it’s more mature now,” says Dave Krozy, regional sales manager at Jana Worldwide in Natick, Mass. “There’s tons of imports from China and Korea and Japan. The margins are horrible; you have to be committed to develop tonnage.

“The 50-cent-per-pound raw product that’s coming out of China is just not for us. We’re coming in at the 90 cents to $1 a pound level, which is something that someone is not embarrassed to serve. The days of selling it at $2.25 a pound and making $1 are long gone.”

Krozy visited seven processing plants in China and found that all were making 50-cent product and selling mostly to Russia.

“The stuff smelled like sulfur; bad eggs,” he says.

Nevertheless, much of Jana’s surimi seafood for sushi comes from China, though produced to a higher standard. The company distributes most of its product to foodservice outlets. Jana Worldwide has had an exclusive surimi contract with Subway for 25 years. For that account, Krozy uses only surimi derived from Alaska pollock, which he considers the benchmark for surimi seafood.

“We sell a lot of product to foodservice; it’s a big portion of our business,” Faris says. Expect a surimi-seafood snack item to be launched early next year, he says.

For packers who add value to the product, there is also retail business to be had, says Faris.

He notes that sales are increasing in double digits for Shining Ocean’s high-end and value-added products. Introduced 18 months ago, Shrimp Combo retails for $3.99 to $4.29 for a 12-ounce package.

Shrimp Combo appeals to the health-conscious consumer because of added omega-3 fatty acids and reduced sodium content.

“Some packers concentrate just on the lower-end formulas,” Faris says. “If consumers try just that end of the spectrum, they could be turned off to the product as a whole.”

“The more new items we can come up with the better,” Faris says. “There’s lots of potential in the U.S. market. Compared to France and Japan, the U.S. just doesn’t consume that much surimi.”

Dr. Jae Park, founder and director of Oregon State University’s Surimi School in
Astoria, Ore., says only 10 percent of U.S households buy surimi seafood.

Overseas, imitation seafood is consumed by a far greater portion of the population.

“France has grown significantly in the past 10 years in its surimi consumption, but right now it is a bit more steady,” Dr. Park says. “Consumption in Eastern Europe and Russia is growing the fastest. “The only problem is that in general, consumers often accept products of poor quality.

“However, for example, a change in Korea is the introduction of a high-quality crab stick in a snack form. It has bumped up consumption significantly in the past two or three years.”

A foodservice staple
Meanwhile, surimi seafood remains an important ingredient for many foodservice operators. Surimi plays a major role on the menu at Ebisu in San Francisco. Steve Fujii, owner and chef, has been serving surimi-seafood dishes since 1973.

“It remains very popular,” he says. “We use it often for our own specials. We might use it for deep frying with tofu or in a California roll. We’ll use it with Dungeness crab sometimes to make crab cakes in order to cut costs.”

Fujii also includes surimi when preparing sunomono, a vinegar and cucumber-based salad, which has become a house favorite.

Fujii estimates he prepares about 30 pounds a week, which costs him $80. He uses only Japanese surimi.

“It has more flavor and texture than what I can get from either Korea or China,” he says. “It is more tender and is not so flaky.”

Quality is the key to selling surimi seafood to discerning chefs.

“Always test, taste and squeeze to make sure you’re getting the best quality for your money,” advises Jana’s Krozy.

November 2005 - SeaFood Business 

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