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. 

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