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

University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., has replaced a fajita bar in one of its dining halls with a superfoods bar, Tommie Media reports.

Aiming to provide more options for athletes and students with dietary restrictions, the new bar offers diners a choice of protein with a variety of toppings, such as beans, fruit, couscous and quinoa.

The superfoods bar has made a few appearances on campus since it was first tried for the school’s football players last summer.

“Word of mouth is getting out, and every day I get a few more people,” Ryan Carlson, a cook at the...

Sponsored Content
gluten free diet

From Stouffer’s.

A large part of menuing allergen-friendly cuisine is deciding which gluten-free items to serve.

In particular, college dining hall operators must decide whether to make gluten-free items in-house or to order gluten-free items from a manufacturer. Some factors to consider are: the size of the university, the demand for gluten-free options,and the ability to have separate gluten-free storage and workspaces in the university dining hall kitchen.

According to FoodService Director , 77% of college and university operators purchase their gluten-free...

Industry News & Opinion

Reading Hospital in West Reading, Pa., is using robots to help deliver patient meals, BCTV reports.

The eight robots, named TUGs, will be used to transport meals from the hospital’s nutrition services department to patient floors at Reading HealthPlex for Advanced Surgical & Patient Care.

Moving at three miles per hour, the robots will follow preprogrammed routes to the HealthPlex, where room ambassadors will remove room service carts from the TUGs and deliver them to patients. The TUGs will then return to nutrition services with dirty dishes for cleaning.

The...

Industry News & Opinion

Sodexo has partnered with fast casual Blaze Pizza to offer the chain’s signature pizzas, salads, beverages and desserts at select venues served by Sodexo, including colleges and universities.

Bill Lacey, senior vice president of marketing at Sodexo, said that Blaze’s growth in the fast-casual sector drove the partnership. Blaze opened its first unit in 2012 near the University of California at Irvine. Its pizzas are flash fired, cooking in under 180 seconds, according to the chain—a selling point for busy customers.

FSD Resources