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
chefs

We started inviting chefs and FSDs from other districts to come prepare lunch. Through featuring different chefs and chef-inspired meals, I’ve found the students have been looking forward to coming into the cafeteria. They are willing to try new things with crazy names, and to ask for their favorite outside items turned healthy.

Ideas and Innovation
tapas

I’ve created a high school “focus group” to see what future college students will want in terms of foodservice. This year, I called up two now-seniors from the last group to get 10 of their friends together. I also include a sophomore or two so that I always have a contact for next year. Tapas, grain bowls and late-night breakfast all originated from this group.

Ideas and Innovation
making meals

This summer, we teamed up with a church to deliver meals to three housing projects. We brought the meals to the church, and then the church recruited volunteers to deliver the meals to the children. We’ve been very impressed with this new model, and it shows great promise in getting meals to children who otherwise would not be able to leave their housing project.

Industry News & Opinion
sharing love

Having never personally experienced a hurricane, I can only imagine the horrors faced by the millions of people whose lives were affected by Harvey and Irma in late August and early September. It’s a group that comprises uncounted noncommercial operations, including Houston Independent School District, which serves 215,000 students.

But from that tragedy has come one of the most impressive feats of foodservice I’ve seen since coming on board at this magazine, partially spearheaded by Nutrition Officer Betti Wiggins , who only just joined the district. For the entire school year,...

FSD Resources