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Top Species - Pollock/surimi

Consistency keeps pollock in high demand, surimi feels price pressure

By Joanne Friedrick
November 01, 2012

Consistency seems to be the key word when characterizing the pollock market. Although the numbers fluctuate slightly from year to year, the total allowable catch (TAC) for this popular whitefish has averaged about 1.2 million metric tons (MT) for the past 35 years.

The 2012 TAC was 1.22 million MT and should be similar going into 2013, adds Pat Shanahan, program director of the Association of Genuine Alaska Pollock Producers (GAPP), based in Seattle, although the actual number won’t be determined until December.

Alaska pollock makes its home in the Pacific, as well as the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska. The main product coming out of Alaska is fillet blocks, says Shanahan. Between 55 percent and 60 percent of the fillet blocks are exported, with about 80 percent of that total going to Europe.

Pollock for surimi is also a major export, with both Japan and Europe as big customers. All of the pollock roe is exported, she adds, most to Japan, with some going to Korea. The remainder of the pollock harvest is used for IQF fillets and H&G fish, the latter going to China for reprocessing.

Russia is the other major source of pollock and in 2011 the United States imported about 2 million pounds of pollock, mostly in frozen fillet blocks. Canada also supplied the United States, coming in with about 1.3 million pounds, though primarily as fresh or salted whole product.

In April during the European Seafood Exposition, the Russian Pollock Catchers Association (PCA) announced the formation of the Russian Pollock Sustainability Alliance to advance the development of that country’s pollock fisheries. As part of that move, the PCA is seeking Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification for its fisheries in the Sea of Okhotsk and the West Bering Sea.

Shanahan isn’t surprised that the Russians are seeking MSC certification — something the Alaska fishery already holds. Even if the Russian fishery is certified, she says there are still differences between the products they bring to market, with Alaska pollock being once frozen versus the twice-frozen product offered through Russia.

Joe Ciaramitaro, procurement manager for High Liner Foods in Danvers, Mass., says MSC certification won’t likely change the company’s buying patterns. High Liner purchases about 20,000 to 25,000 tons of pollock a year, he says, with half coming from Alaska as single-frozen and the remainder being Russian product processed in China.

The demand for single-frozen has grown, says Ciaramitaro, because of the quality and the value. These days pricing is the same for U.S. product as for Russian, he says. “It used to be Russian product was 5 to 10 cents cheaper, but now it’s on par with Alaska,” he explains.

The twice-frozen pollock goes primarily to retail, he says, because of its competitive price, while once frozen is used for foodservice product.

Because of the consistency in supply, Ciaramitaro hasn’t experienced any sourcing problems. “Sometimes the fish is small,” he notes, “and that can require changes in production. But it’s pretty stable and predictable for a wild species.”

Ciaramitaro did note that last year, because of a bycatch issue with salmon, about 65,000 tons of the TAC was left in the water. The pollock didn’t school, so it was more difficult to land them without impacting the salmon.

Mark Palicki, VP-marketing for Fortune Fish Co., a Bensenville, Ill., distributor, says pollock is a good value and thus is attractive to accounts such as Whole Foods, which buys frozen Alaska pollock from Fortune. “We see Whole Foods go through quite a bit of it,” he says. 

In addition to its price, pollock’s MSC certification is attractive to retailers like Whole Foods, adds Palicki. Compared with other species, Palicki sees pollock as a bit of a newcomer to the retail product arena, but a good substitute for more pricey species such as cod.

A cost-effective species 

In the recently released National Fisheries Institute Top 10 List (see U.S. News, page 10) pollock jumped one spot, moving from fifth most popular to fourth. In 2011, the per-capita consumption of pollock was 1.312 pounds, up about 10 percent from 2010’s 1.192 pounds. Pollock swapped spots with another mild whitefish, tilapia.

Jim LaBelle, VP-foodservice marketing at High Liner, says pollock has a lot going for it: “It’s cost effective and has what consumers enjoy about white fish, it’s white, flaky and versatile.”

Foodservice operators can offer products such as High Liner’s Fire Roasters fillets for about $1.50 a pound less than the same item made with tilapia, says LaBelle. “We always say pollock is one of the best deals in foodservice.”

Another avenue for pollock is the education market, where the emphasis is increasingly moving toward healthier options.

LaBelle says part of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act is the move by 2013 to whole grains for any grain-related products. As a result, High Liner has launched its Whole Grains-Rich Seafood Solutions line, including a whole-grain breaded pollock.

GAPP is also continuing its focus on getting pollock into schools, says Shanahan. For the school year that ran from July 2011 to June 2012, about 3 million pounds of pollock were sold through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s commodity program. And through September of this year, more than 2.2 million pounds have been sold, she adds.

Like LaBelle, Shanahan credits the new meal guidelines with creating a demand for seafood. One of the areas GAPP is addressing, she says, is coming up with unbreaded seafood products. Still, she notes, presenting seafood in a form kids are used to, such as nuggets, does make it easier for them to try it.

GAPP has a website, greatfishforgreatkids.org, devoted to this cause. The site offers recipe ideas for using pollock in more creative menuing options such as fish tacos, pizzas, bowls and fish and dips. Beyond making pollock competitive with other foods through recipes, the site also is designed to help schools source product and then merchandise it via collateral materials as well as sampling and training programs.

Shanahan also notes the increasing use of pollock and surimi seafood in colleges and universities, with schools such as Davidson and the University of New Hampshire featuring pollock fillets in various preparations ranging from chili- lime pollock with vegetables to fish tacos and po’boys. The University of California-Berkeley has even started a competition among schools to see which university can develop the longest California roll, she says.

Pollock has also been a focus of new product development at King & Prince Seafood in Brunswick, Ga. Mike Tigani, director of marketing, says the company launched a 10-item battered and breaded pollock line under the Oceanway brand geared toward the non-commercial markets.

With different shapes and portion sizes, pollock can easily fit into various menu options. “We have a lot of different applications and different shapes,” says Tigani. “Anything that you can think of and be creative with.”

The decision to add pollock helps fill a void in the company’s offerings for a more value-oriented, affordable seafood product, he says. “It hits a niche in our portfolio.”

Surimi takes shape 

Additionally for the university/college market, King & Prince debuted its Sushi Bob line that includes crab pollock surimi seafood and Lobster Sensations, a blend of real lobster and surimi.

The idea behind this line is to give higher education foodservice operators the ability to offer sushi without having to invest in a sushi chef. Sold as kits with presheeted frozen rice and frozen seafood, each one yields 32 sushi rolls that an operator can make. Sushi Bob has been in development for more than a year, having gone through focus group and operator testing, says Tigani. 

Using surimi seafood, operators can make a traditional California roll or a Crazy Lobster Roll using the recipes and videos provided, he says.

Pollock and surimi seafood were already staples in the company’s Mrs. Friday’s and Pride of Alaska brands.

Robert Bleu, president of Shining Ocean in Sumner, Wash., says the “dismal” hake fishing has required the company to rely more heavily on pollock for its surimi seafood production. 

Shining Ocean uses pollock and Pacific whiting, or hake, both MSC-certified, for its surimi. The switch to more pollock resulted in some upward price pressure, he adds.

Within the surimi seafood category, Bleu says the trend continues to be toward healthy products and cleaner labels across the company’s entire portfolio. “We’ve been emphasizing healthy in all of our brands,” he says.

Flake cuts continue to be most popular, but “imitation lobster is a supporting character.” Retail sales are up for Shining Ocean, says Bleu, although he couldn’t say for certain if that was a categorywide spike, or specific to his brands.

One area where pollock still needs to make some inroads is with casual and white-tablecloth dining establishments. High Liner’s LaBelle says while pollock has been a staple in quick-serve restaurants and non-commercial foodservice such as education and healthcare, “we haven’t seen pollock in the fine-dining sector.”

Its form — fillet blocks — is the main factor that has prevented it from taking off in those other areas, says Shanahan from GAPP. But she notes there are some chefs who are working with pollock.

“The whole Alaska story is a very marketable one,” she says. Additionally, pollock has its sustainability, traceability and consistency going for it. “We just need to come up with ideas to use it in those [casual/fine
dining] settings.”

Another selling point that is even new to Shanahan is pollock’s omega-3 content. It beats out canned tuna and cod, she says, while meeting the USDA guidelines for omega-3s. “I was impressed with that,” she adds.

Contributing editor Joanne Friedrick lives in Portland, Maine 

Find other SeaFood Business articles with pollock / surimi here.

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