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Special Feature: Doing more with the abundant pink salmon

Product diversification takes another look at canned salmon

Alaska seafood suppliers have high hopes for the abundant pink salmon.   - Photo by Jessica Hathaway
By Melissa Wood
April 01, 2014

In the last decade, the growing variety of salmon products has taken pinks out of the can and into burgers, H&G fillets and other value-added products. However, the next innovation may again be cans, as Alaska processors consider moving from the traditional tall, 14.75-ounce vessels to something smaller and more accessible. 

“To hit a certain price point there is a real need to reduce the normal size of canned salmon, much like tuna, cereal, ice cream — it’s a pretty common thing happening in the retail food world right now,” says Tyson Fick, communications director for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI) in Juneau, Alaska.

To make this happen, the state legislature is currently reauthorizing HB 204, The Salmon & Herring Product Development Tax Credit. The previous version of the bill, which has been around for 10 years, gave tax credits to processors that invested in creating new product forms, helping to drive diversification of pinks: In 2003, 72 percent of Alaska’s pink salmon was canned. The canned share of Alaska pink salmon dropped to 49 percent in 2012. 

Now that the bill is up for renewal, the legislature is working on updates that would allow the credit to be used for new types of canned product, which were previously excluded. The funds have to be used to create something new, says Fick, and not for simply replacing old equipment.

“The idea was to drive innovation and in this case now that’s been successful, and it would make sense to include the smaller can size in this tax credit,” he says.

“[Determining] what will happen on the ground if that happens with the salmon canners is like looking into the crystal ball. What the absolute right size is, we don’t really know, but I’m sure they’ll be in touch with [companies like Bumble Bee].”

The past year was big for pinks. Alaska fishermen landed a record 219 million pink salmon in 2013, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced in January that it would buy $20 million in canned pinks for food assistance programs.

Despite the good news, and healthy fishery, high catches had some worried about a glut of canned product lowering prices. To address this, ASMI committed $1.5 million to a campaign specifically marketing canned pinks.

For the last decade, however, pink prices have only been going up. They rose from 9 cents per pound ex-vessel value in 2003 to 48 cents per pound in 2012, according to data compiled by the McDowell Group in Juneau.

Tom Sunderland, VP of marketing and communications for Ocean Beauty Seafoods in Seattle, does not think that will change.

“Prices haven’t crashed or anything, things are selling through to an OK rate. Business looks good, so there’s absolutely no reason to panic,” he says. “Things are going fine despite a heavy catch this year. If Alaska can manage selling through very strongly when the catch is this strong, that’s good news for the industry and the state.”

He says value-added products made with pink salmon continue to grow. 

“There’s been long-term growth. Pink salmon is an abundant resource. It’s a good eating fish and so there’s no reason that value-added development should slow down anytime soon.”

In particular, burgers are big. “The salmon burger category has probably been the most consistent category in our industry for sustained growth over the last 10 years,” says Sunderland. He sums up their appeal by recalling a conversation he had with a customer from the Midwest. He asked her if she liked fish, and she said “yes,” but she doesn’t know how to cook it. At the same time, she said she really liked salmon burgers and bought those.

“‘I know how to cook a burger,’” Sunderland recalls her saying. “It wasn’t fish to her, it was a burger, and I think that is the key to why salmon burgers have been so consistently successful. It’s a burger. Everybody knows all these good things about it, and they know how to cook it.”

Though best known for its tuna products, Chicken of the Sea in San Diego has also been investing in pink salmon’s diversification.

“In 1984, Chicken of the Sea became the first to introduce skinless and boneless canned pink salmon. We went on to introduce skinless and boneless pink salmon in convenient foil pouches in 2002 — becoming the first in the industry to do so, in the process,” says Christie Fleming, senior VP of marketing, who said the company is showcasing products like its salmon pouches as it celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.

“Chicken of the Sea was early to realize the importance of packaged, easily accessible seafood, not only as a key mealtime staple, but as an affordable protein source,” says Fleming. “We also recognized salmon as an essential ingredient in many kitchens. With our growing line of salmon pouches, and other Chicken of the Sea products, we specifically target consumers wanting to combine taste, nutrition and convenience.”

For its canned pink salmon marketing campaign, ASMI intends to reach out to “über” athletes by advertising in magazines that specifically cater to that audience, including Women’s Running, Triathlete, Runner’s World, Bicycling and Competitor, and promoting the product at rock ‘n’ roll marathons, a road-running series where race routes are lined with live bands and cheerleaders. 

“The über athletes offer an opportunity for us because it’s such a healthy, lean protein that’s also very easy to prepare. So as people are looking for healthy proteins, this stacks up nicely,” says Fick. 

The campaign, which includes retail, foodservice and international efforts, won’t be leaving behind pink salmon’s traditional customers. The highest concentration of canned pink salmon is consumed in the Southeast, in markets such as Charlotte and Raleigh, N.C., Atlanta, Birmingham, Ala., Baltimore, Louisville, Ky., and Nashville, Tenn. Those customers will be receiving coupons and other promotional material.  

To get more people to eat canned salmon, Sunderland believes the smaller can size will help, along with education about the product.

“I think we have to build a campaign around the nutritional profile of canned salmon and how it aligns with people’s interests right now. It’s about the most nutritious product you can buy,” he says. “It’s canned, it can sit for a long time in your pantry, it’s convenient — it’s got all that going for it. It’s going to take an educational effort to get that out in front of people.”

Email Assistant Editor Melissa Wood at mwood@divcom.com

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