« September 2006 Table of Contents
Species Focus - Surimi seafood
Suppliers see opportunity to win consumers over with higher-quality product and education
By Rick Ramseyer
September 01, 2006
After years of relatively stagnant sales, the surimi-seafood
category may be on the verge of a jumpstart. Segment leaders
are striving to educate U.S. consumers about the merits of
simulated shellfish, as well as introducing health-oriented
products and emphasizing higher-grade formulations than the
cheaper varieties that could turn off customers.
Further, Louis Kemp, one of the sector's best-known players,
is now owned by industry giant Trident Seafoods, which intends
to bolster a brand that's lost luster of late.
The need to give surimi seafood a boost is apparent from
U.S. consumption figures, which haven't changed much in more
than a decade despite the versatility of faux crab, lobster,
scallops and shrimp for use in everything from salads and
sandwiches to soups, dips and casseroles.
(Surimi seafood, made from the paste of cooked,
mild-flavored whitefish, simulates shellfish with the addition
of starches, red colorings, flavorings, binders and
"I've been in this industry for
14 years, and the same
numbers are being tossed around of how much surimi seafood
Americans consume annually: somewhere between 170 million and
185 millions pounds," says Michael Faris, president of Shining
Ocean in Sumner, Wash., maker of the Kanimi® and Kanimi Deluxe®
brands, among others.
"There's only one in 10 households, if that, that even
bothers to use [imitation shellfish], so we've got a long, long
way to go," Faris adds.
"But there's a lot of opportunity."
In the meantime, there's been plenty of jockeying for
position in the marketplace, in large part due to Louis Kemp's
woes. Sales of refrigerated or frozen Louis Kemp branded surimi
seafood plummeted more than 20 percent for the 26 weeks ending
July 8, according to ACNielsen retail tracking. That drop is
indicative of Louis Kemp's freefall over the past few
Conversely, competitors such as Shining Ocean and
Trans-Ocean Products picked up business, with jumps of 24.6
percent and 21.3 percent, respectively, for the same
Trans-Ocean, in fact, achieved a milestone by surpassing
Louis Kemp for the first time as the nation's No. 1 retail
surimi-seafood brand , with sales during the 26 weeks of $11.54
million, compared with $10.86 million for Louis Kemp. That
translates to a dollar share of 27.6 percent for Trans-Ocean
and 26 percent for Louis Kemp.
"It's a big deal for us," says Louis Shaheen, VP of sales
and marketing for Trans-Ocean in Bellingham, Wash., maker of
the Crab Classic line. "At one time Louis Kemp had a 60 percent
For 2006, Trans-Ocean will process more than 23 million
pounds of imitation shellfish for retail outlets - the popular
flake style goes for $2.99 for an 8-ounce package - plus
another 3 million pounds for the U.S. units of the Subway
Shining Ocean, meanwhile, is on pace for sales growth of 11
percent this year.
"We do a lot of promotions and countertop sampling," Faris
says. "If consumers have had a bad experience [with an inferior
item], we try to bring them back into the fold."
Moreover, the company provides surimi seafood in bulk to
Japanese sushi bars, as well as to seafood processors that make
"Over the last 10 years, retail supermarkets have gone the
way of outsourcing to salad-makers," says Faris.
Some retailers still do things themselves, of course. Ken's
SuperFair Foods, with six stores in South Dakota, uses bulk
surimi seafood to make an imitation-crab spread that sells for
$4.29 a pound. The company makes faux crab salad as well, and
offers three sizes of seafood platters, priced from $26.99 to
$49.99, that include simulated crabmeat.
"We usually use a 25-pound box of the crab flakes once a
month," says Brad Scoular, Ken's meat manager.
Platters are also part of the lineup at A&P stores in
the Long Island, N.Y., area. Among A&P's deli offerings is
the Deep Sea Duet, comprising 3 pounds of imitation crabmeat
and 2 pounds of shrimp, plus cocktail sauce, for $34.99,
according to the company's Web site.
Trident steps in
Trident, long a force in foodservice with its SeaLegs®
surimi seafood, bolstered its retail stake with the March
purchase of Louis Kemp and its production facility in Motley,
Minn., from packaged-food goliath ConAgra of Omaha, Neb.
(ConAgra acquired Louis Kemp in 2000 from International Home
Foods but is has shed its seafood, refrigerated meats and
Trident now intends to reinvigorate the brand, known for its
Seafood Delights™ crab, lobster and scallop blends, by
upgrading the surimi formula to include 100 percent Alaska
pollock and no Pacific whiting, combined with a higher
percentage of real shellfish.
"The idea is nothing really new, but the decision to make or
a high-quality, all-pollock surimi-seafood product is
a bold step," Trident spokesperson John van Amerongen wrote in
"It reverses the trend to cheapen the product, and we think
the market is ready for [one] that works just like crab and
lobster in many, many applications."
To promote the changes, Trident is upping the advertising
for Louis Kemp with a new retail brochure and an on-package
"Our goal is to get surimi buyers to increase the frequency
of their purchases," van Amerongen wrote. "Our broader
intention and opportunity are to invigorate Louis Kemp and
invigorate the surimi-seafood category as
Surimi seafood 101
Trident isn't the only big gun that wants to extend outreach
and educate U.S. consumers about the merits of surimi
"There are so many people who don't know about this product
that we know we have to invest money in getting more consumers
to try it," says Trans-Ocean's Shaheen.
Trans-Ocean is working with an advertising agency and
conducting research to develop a consumer-focused marketing
campaign that likely will launch next year. The campaign may
include magazine ads and free-standing inserts, plus some
regional testing of radio and perhaps TV spots.
"Our research is [showing that] the health aspect of surimi
seafood is not being told," Shaheen says. "It's low-fat or
no-fat, it's omega 3-fortified, it's low-calorie, it's fully
cooked and it's easy to use. It's simple seafood."
In addition, Trans-Ocean is test-marketing "new packaging
concepts" for its items sold in Wal-Mart stores, says Shaheen,
declining to be more specific.
Shining Ocean, too, is applying more promotional muscle. It
recently introduced the Crab Smart™ and Lobster Smart™ lines -
the 12-ounce packages sell for around $3 - touted on the
packaging as "a smart, low-fat way to add omega 3 oils and
calcium to your diet."
"It's heart-healthy because the omega-3s are in it - we're
the first company to do that - and then we lowered the sodium
and raised the calcium," Faris says.
Shining Ocean also is testing a crab-flavored, heart-healthy
snack item in a few markets but isn't ready to announce it.
That effort comes on the heels of the success of the company's
Shrimp Combo™, made with a formula that includes real crab and
shrimp and is fortified with omega 3 and calcium.
A related issue that's been top-of-mind with industry
representatives for the past decade is the federal requirement
to use "imitation" as a product descriptor.
"The word 'imitation' has a negative connotation that we
hope to be able to modify," wrote Trident's van Amerongen,
noting that a National Fisheries Institute committee has made
a recommendation to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to
eliminate the need for the word.
"We'll see how far that gets," he continued. "But it would
be great to get to the point where we could simply call it
'crab surimi' or 'shrimp surimi' and let it go at that."
All surimi isn't equal
Industry stakeholders stress that surimi seafood is an
excellent product - when it's done right. But leading players
are concerned that the price of whitefish, which rose by double
digits last year and has stayed high, has led some companies to
seek cheaper formulations that contain more water, use less
fish or incorporate other species.
That, in tandem with a flood of imports from countries such
as China, has resulted in inconsistent product.
"All surimi isn't created equal," says Christian Limberg,
national sales manager at Harbor Seafood in New Hyde Park, N.Y.
The supplier sold 11 million pounds of simulated shellfish in
2005 under the Oyster Bay brand and another 2 million pounds in
private label .
"My concern is, with some [packers] focusing strictly on
price, they're sacrificing quality and, ultimately, their own
customer base," says Limberg. "It will literally put a bad
taste in someone's mouth, and that has an effect on all of
"I'm not one of those guys that would say all imports are
bad and all U.S. product is good," adds Limberg, noting the
vast majority of Harbor Seafood product is made with domestic
whitefish. "Regardless of where it comes from, you have to
maintain the integrity."
Van Amerongen takes a similar stance for Trident, which has
a fleet of fishing vessels in the North Pacific and makes its
A "major factor keeping pollock surimi flat on the world
market is the continued availability of relatively low-grade
surimi made from itoyori and other tropical-fish species," van
Despite these challenges, industry representatives contend
that higher-grade surimi seafood has a staunch customer
The formula used by Subway in Milford, Conn., for its
Seafood Sensation sandwich is made with Alaska-sourced pollock
processed by Trans-Ocean - and supplied to Subway by Jana
Worldwide in Natick, Mass. - and contains 10 percent real
crabmeat. The sandwich is priced around $3.69 for the 6-inch
and $5.69 for the foot-long.
"I heard one of our franchisees say, 'It's the Cadillac of
sandwiches,'" says Les Winograd, Subway spokesperson. "And
there are loyal fans; my mother is one of them."
All told, processors say there's a promising opportunity to
grow the surimi-seafood category, buttressed by marketing,
innovative products and higher-quality formulas.
"We want those who have lost faith in surimi seafood to have
a chance to try it for the first time again," van Amerongen
concluded. "And for those who haven't ever tried surimi, we
want to say, 'Try this - you'll like it.'"
Contributing Editor Rick Ramseyer lives in Cumberland,