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Spotlight: Seafood burgers

Burgers fill demand for healthful food that's easy to prepare

Burgers are a quick and easy seafood meal that
    consumers can prepare. - Photo courtesy of Phillips Foods
By Lauren Kramer
March 01, 2009

Consumer desire to eat healthful foods and ease of preparation are just two reasons seafood burgers have become more popular in the past decade. Seafood burger menu mentions were up slightly in 2008 to 4 percent, from 2.5 percent in 2006, according to the Datassential research firm in Chicago.

The predominant fish used in seafood burgers today is salmon. Thanks to positive press about the health benefits of eating salmon, the burger's popularity remains strong. Salmon represents 60 percent of all seafood burgers on restaurant menus, notes Datassential.

"Consumers truly believe in the health benefits of eating wild salmon," says John van Amerongen, spokesperson for Trident Seafoods in Seattle, which introduced its salmon burger made with pink salmon to the market in 2002. A couple of years ago, when the pink salmon run was weak in Southeast Alaska, the company modified its burger by adding keta or chum salmon to the raw material mix.

Commercially favored for its roe, keta flesh is paler than most other salmon species and as a result, typically lower cost.

"But it still has a delicate salmon flavor," says van Amerongen. "Our decision to use chum salmon turned out to be a happy necessity since it expanded our raw material options for the item, and we can adjust the inputs to meet supply and market fluctuations. Using chums gave us a hedge against low returns of pink salmon, for example in 2006, when more chums returned to Southeast Alaska than pink salmon."

The wild Alaskan salmon burger is one of Trident's most popular retail products. The reason, in part, is the product's convenience and ease of use, he speculates. On a barbecue grill at medium high, Trident salmon burgers cook from frozen in three-to-four minutes on each side, or only nine minutes in a conventional oven at 400 degrees F, says van Amerongen.

"There's no rocket science necessary in the kitchen, and they taste great every time. That makes it a tough combination to resist if you want to eat healthy and you're in a hurry - and everyone's in a hurry."

In addition to its salmon burgers, Trident also offers wahoo and mahimahi burgers, which it introduced to the market in 2004 and 2006, respectively.

"These varieties offer a classy tropical alternative for our foodservice customers who are looking for the same convenience in the kitchen, but want to offer a more exotic, unique species to meet with a particular theme they've got going, such as tropical or Latin," he says.

As a more familiar species, salmon burger sales far exceed those of the wahoo and mahi burgers, but van Amerongen is optimistic about their market potential.

"We've seen a lot more mahi on menus over the last couple of years, and we're hoping restaurants will see how easy it is to add mahi to the menu with the burger now available," he says.

When seafood burgers were first introduced to the market, they were composed of by-product such as trim, says Tom Sunderland, director of marketing for Ocean Beauty Seafoods, also in Seattle.

"Byproduct is still used in some cases, but we use whole fish sides as well. Today, sales expansion and increased consumer expectations have forced manufacturers to upgrade the product and focus more on the end user," says Sunderland.

Since 1992, Ocean Beauty has offered breaded and non-breaded burgers, the latter made from Alaska salmon, primarily pinks and chums. "As far as we know, these are the only widely available salmon burgers made from fresh fish, and we're aggressively expanding our retail, foodservice and customizable product offerings," says Sunderland.

The category is showing signs of healthy growth, with several retailers selling private-label salmon burgers.

"There is a very active all-natural emphasis for the non-fish ingredients, an emphasis on non-fried or battered products and an increasing emphasis on the health benefits of eating seafood in general and salmon in particular," Sunderland says.

SeaPak Shrimp Co. based in Saint Simons Island, Ga., is one of the most recent players to join the seafood burger category, introducing its salmon burger at club stores in January last year and at supermarkets in May.

"At retail, salmon remains the predominant seafood burger in the frozen section," says Mary Eva Tredway, spokesperson for SeaPak. "There is some variety in the fresh seafood section such as shrimp burgers, but these haven't made it to the frozen aisle at this time."

The company anticipates its strong sales will continue as product awareness increases. "We predict that salmon burgers will become a popular staple alongside [the company's] beef counterpart in a few years," she says. "After all, they are a delicious and nutritious alternative to the beef hamburger, but with a significantly lower calorie count and lots of health-promoting omega-3's."

However, the product category has not been immune to rising ex-vessel prices, fuel costs and the effects of the recession. Compared to last year, the price of pink and chum salmon has increased substantially, says van Amerongen.

"Since our salmon burgers are all flesh, with no fillers or odds and ends, their price had to go up, too. Fuel costs and transportation increased as well and that's driving all seafood prices up at a time when consumers are worried about the economy and choosing their purchases carefully," says van Amerongen.

With a club-store salmon burger priced at less than $1.10 per 4-ounce patty, "They're still a great value," he adds.

 

Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer lives in British Columbia

 

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