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

Industry News & Opinion

The University of Maryland will begin offering weekly specials at all of its dining halls this semester, The Diamond Back reports.

The weekday specials will allow Dining Services to offer past menu items that students miss as well as new dishes students have been requesting, according to a spokesperson.

Students can find out which specials are being offered each week via dining hall table tents as well as through Dining Services’ social media. During select weeks, the specials may reflect a particular theme, such as Taste of the South.

Read the full story via...

Ideas and Innovation
pinterest hand phone

We like to offer a constantly changing menu. Last year, I started a Pinterest account—not for marketing, but for my team, so that they can look to the recipes for inspiration and try something new. We tried protein cookies based onto a Pinterest recipe, and our residents loved them.

Ideas and Innovation
coal creek student salad bar

When I was visiting Minneapolis Public Schools, I saw that they have these cool signs on top of their salad bars. As soon as we got back, we re-created them. They are big and branded, and have the portion requirements. They say “Taste something new today” on one side, and we support our local farmers on the other. They help the bars look fresh and delish, and attract students’ eyes.

Menu Development
chicken tetrazzini bowl

The No Whey station in the main dining hall at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, Ga., offers students meals that are free of the eight most common allergens. When Brittany Parham, the dietitian who oversees the station, polled food-sensitive students on which favorites they missed most, “comfort foods” was the overwhelming response. Parham, who herself has food allergies, worked with chefs on the 20,000-student campus to focus on allergen-free versions of pasta bakes, biscuits, banana bread and other down-home dishes. Recently, the chefs reworked the school’s traditional chicken...

FSD Resources