In defense of surimi

A trip to Alaska makes Paul King a surimi defender.

Earlier this month, I traveled to the Aleutian Islands of Unalaska and Akutan with several other editors as part of a media tour hosted by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute and the Genuine Alaska Pollock Producers. We got a chance to see the processing of pollock into fillets, as well as the harvesting of the pollock roe and the making of fish meal from pollock by-products.

The scope of the operations we saw was impressive—tons of fish per day are cleaned, filleted and processed, either into frozen blocks that one day become the fish fillet sandwiches sold in quick-serve restaurants such as McDonald’s and Burger King, into IQF fillets or into surimi. Equally impressive were the lengths that agencies like the NOAA Fisheries and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game take to ensure that species like pollock, salmon, halibut and crab are not overfished.

But for me, the biggest takeaway of the five-day trip came before we even arrived in Alaska. We actually began the trip in Seattle, with a visit to a surimi processing plant owned by Unisea in Redmond, Wash. Surimi production is a fascinating process—proprietary, too, according to Unisea officials, which is a shame because it would make a great episode on Discovery Channel’s “How It’s Made.”

The basic idea is to take fish fillets and mince them, then refine the fish until only pure fish protein remains. The minced fish is then mixed with some binding agents such as cornstarch, some flavoring and color may be added, and then the mixture is formed into what most supermarket-goers buy as “sea legs” or “imitation crab legs.” And that, it seems, is the problem.

Back in the Unisea offices, while we tasted various grades and forms of surimi, company executives explained that government regulation requires that packagers label surimi as an “imitation” product. In the eyes of surimi manufacturers like Unisea, there is nothing imitation about surimi.

“It is real, 100% fish protein,” said Mike Cusack, vice president of sales and marketing for F. W. Bryce Inc. “Nothing artificial is added.”

And yet this food, which is loved by several cultures, most notably the Japanese, is relegated to lower-class status here. The U.S. Department of Agriculture does not even qualify surimi as a meat alternate for the National School Lunch Program. Instead, it is an “other food,” along with condiments like ketchup.

This, of course, frustrates fish processors who would love to see all types of fish get more attention. I think they have a legitimate argument.

Where does the fault lie? Does surimi indeed suffer from some government vendetta against processed fish protein? Or is this a case of a marketing effort gone awry? Who was it that decided to package surimi in the U.S. as a substitute for real crab legs?

Whatever its history, I think surimi deserves a second chance. If it offers school foodservice personnel the opportunity to add yet another healthy protein to their menus, wouldn’t that bolster the federal government’s efforts to provide healthier food to children?

Surimi could have legs—excuse the pun—beyond school foodservice, as well. After all, chefs take nonmeat proteins such as tofu and seitan and make fake chicken fillets and hamburger patties. Why is surimi so different?

I don’t know where is the best place to start a campaign to earn surimi favored protein status, and it’s probably not really my place. All I know is, it tastes good. 

Keywords: 
menu development

More From FoodService Director

Ideas and Innovation
staff pack

To keep staff motivated, we locked them in a room together. As part of a midsemester training session, we formed work groups and sent them to a local Escape Room to see which team could play the game together most effectively and escape first. Not only was this training a great team-building experience, but it supported a local new business and gave our staff a memorable experience.

Ideas and Innovation
star employee

Senior leadership meets twice a year to do organizational talent planning for every position from the top down. We talk about who are the potential high-performers, and go through how they can grow. People are your differentiator—you need to take care of your assets, and your assets are your human resources.

Industry News & Opinion

Students at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor will be served student-grown produce from the campus farm at dining halls this fall, M Live reports.

The dining team received its first batch of produce from UM’s on-campus farm in June, after students received the proper USDA certification to grow, harvest and deliver food to campus dining halls. In order to figure out what produce is needed, students communicate with the dining department weekly, and Michigan Dining purchases items accordingly.

"The students are involved from seed to plate," Executive Chef Frank Turchan...

Sponsored Content
college students eating

From Ovention.

Today’s colleges and universities know they should offer more than a large selection of breakfast cereals in the morning and chicken tenders at lunch to appeal to students. When it comes to what’s trending on campuses, here’s a look at what directors can tune into to boost engagement.

1. Expanded dining hours

Late-night options have long been a popular fixture on college campuses, but if it’s too late, students often choose to venture to off-campus retailers to satisfy their cravings. According to Technomic’s 2017 College & University Consumer Trend...

FSD Resources