Sales of surimi products in USA market still grow despite consumer ignorance.
Surimi-based products are growing by leaps and bounds in the United States, despite the fact that less than half the consumers even known what they are.
Volume was up 16% last year, to 130 million pounds, according to Roland Chambers, general manager of Louis Kemp Seafood Co., Duluth, Minn. Loren A. Morey of Seafest Products, Motley, Minn., put it at 140 million.
Although Morey's statistical charts kept reiterating that "no solid data exists," the growth from an estimated 18 million pounds in 1982 has to look impressive. Moreover, Morey figures growth picked up again in 1988, after snailing from 120 million to 125 million in 1987.
But Chambers, who shared the podium with Morey at the International Seafood Conference panel on surimi, noted that less than half of U.S. consumers are aware of surimi analogs (90%+ know what shrimp and crab meat are), less than 25% have tried any (vs. 70%+ for shrimp), and less than 15% eat them regularly (at least once a month, vs. 50%+ for shellfish).
What's the problem? Chambers cited several factors:
. Lack of clear focus on the retail consumer by producers (vs. the strong foodservice campaign for Sea Legs and the like).
. Confusing federal regulations --the "imitation" labeling and the lack of a commonly-accepted name definition for surimi products.
. Wide variations in quality.
. Low level of consumer marketing expenditures (less than $1 million in 1987).
Given all that, why has the category been such a success? Again, said Chambers, there are several factors:
. Price. At an average $4 a pound, surimi compares favorably with salmon, halibut, fresh tuna and some cod items, and is well below standard shellfish prices.
. Quality. Despite the variations, it continues to improve, especially for imitation crab products (Imitation shrimp and lobster still have taste and texture problems).
. Health concerns. Surimi-based products, like other seafood, are low in calories and cholesterol (one drawback: a relatively high sodium content).
. Convenience. Surimi-based products are fully-cooked, which is important in a country where 60% of the married women work, and many don't know how to properly cook fish anyway.
What's the typical surimi product consumer like? Well, Chambers said, he or she is a "seafood-aware person," and thus share the demographic profile of the seafood consumer generally: 34-55 years old, some college education, over $30,000 income, part of a two or three-person household. So far, the pattern is to serve surimi items in salads or as cocktails; little in-home usage has been noted for hot entrees or sandwiches.
Less than 10% of surimi sales are pre-packaged branded products, which may account for the limited market. "We believe the development of this prepackaged market is absolutely essential to the continued growth of surimi products in the U.S.," Chambers said. "We feel that is the best way to establish a quality, high-profile image with the consumer so that she will be convinced to include surimi seafoods as part of her regular menu cycle."
There is a two-fold problem: expanding the use of surimi beyond salads, and increasing public awareness of the category. Branded products and the promotion that goes with them can do both, he said. Louis Kemp is following that route; so is Seafest.
Morey cited the importance of such new products as finger foods, entrees, snack foods and health foods. "Growth of these stand-alone products will meet the demands of