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Seafood salad sales ride the tide: surimi market stable but lackluster: there's still a lot of confusion among consumers about surimi, but processors are trying to educate them in the United States--and get them to try more upscale products.

Surimi seafood, analog seafood, imitation crabmeat, whatever you call it, the United States produces a lot of it--thousands and thousands of tons' worth of it in fact. Pacific Seafoods, makers of the Donfinic's, Newport, and Searock brands, reports that US factory trawlers and shore-based processors turn out approximately 150,000 metric tons of pollock-based surimi each year.

And though Alaskan waters are a rich, high-quality source for surimi seafood, they account for only a portion of raw materials going into the vast worldwide industry. Surimi and surimi analog products are being made in China, Japan, India, South America and elsewhere.

Surimi is the generic name for a processed white fish paste product. Pollock is one of the most common fish used in its formulation, but surimi can also be made from cod, halibut, sole, blue whiting, jack mackerel or sablefish, as well as a variety of white-fleshed tropical species. Once the fish is processed into a paste, it is often mixed with water, fillers, flavorings and colors. Higher-end surimi is also mixed with crab, lobster or shrimp.

Surimi processing began centuries ago in Japan, where the fish paste is known as kamaboko. Pacific Seafoods reports that the average Japanese consumer eats 15 pounds of surimi each year, which ranks Japan at the top in per capita consumption.

In the United States, consumers are most familiar with surimi as the seafood ingredient in mayonnaise-laden seafood blend salads found at supermarket dell counters. It is also purchased as chunks, flakes, noodles, "crab claws," molded "lobster tails" and filament sticks, which are similar to string cheese in that they can be pulled apart.

A number of industry players think that removing the word "imitation" from packaging, a designation which is required by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the USA, would help boost sales. As such, surimi producers are expected to present the FDA with a new name for marketing their products.

"Anything other than 'imitation' would be an improvement," said John Salle, vice president of sales for Trident Seafoods, Seattle, Washington.

Meanwhile, the National Fisheries Institute and the Genuine Alaska Pollock Producers have jointly initiated a study to find out if consumers can tell the difference between surimi and natural seafood products. The goal is to come up with a new descriptive term for surimi that piques consumer interest without being misleading.

Naperville, Illinois-based Louis Kemp Seafood (Phone +1 603-857-1000), a division of ConAgra just sold to Trident Seafoods (see sidebar) and makers of the leading Seafood Delights product line, reports that "today more than 170 million pounds of surimi are sold (combined retail and foodservice) in North American markets yearly, malting it one of the fastest-growing seafood products in the world."

The Louis Kemp website offers a variety of recipes to help consumers think beyond seafood salad. But seafood salad is still how consumers view surimi's utility. And part of the product's image problem and lackluster sales growth performance.

When surimi was first introduced as "imitation crab meat" to the US market in the 1980s, at a time when Alaska crab was temporarily in short supply, it was a huge sales success achieving triple digit growth. Since its initial stellar rise at deli counters, on foodservice menus, and at fish counters, sales have remained stable.

Jessica Hogue, a food analyst with New York-based Find/SVP, believes that there is a lot of room for development in this category. Consumers need to be educated about the product and ways to use it.

She says that Americans definitely have an appetite for seafood and know that it's healthy. Yet, there is confusion about what they should and shouldn't eat. There are also many questions about shelf life for surimi.

Robert Bleu, vice president of sales and marketing for Sumner, Washington-based Shining Ocean (phone: +1 800-935-6464) says that one of file most frequently asked questions is indeed about shelf life. Both Shining Ocean, and competitor TransOcean of Bellingham, Wash. (phone: +1 888-215-4815) have FAQ sections on their websites to address "use by date" queries. For this reason some manufacturers prefer selling chilled surimi over frozen.

Chilled products have clear use by dates provided by the manufacturer. Once a product is frozen and thawed, it is then up to the retailer to label the expiration date for the consumer. However, there is still a solid market for frozen surimi. The frozen product is ideal for value-minded foodservice operators who opt to thaw and prepare product as needed.

Shitting Ocean's chilled surimi assortment has been developed for high-end taste and health benefits. Bleu told Quick Frozen Foods International that the idea behind its premium Kanimi brand Crab Smart product came from personal experience.

Bleu's doctor warned that he needed to reduce cholesterol consumption or take a cholesterol-lowering drug. He asked for some time to bring down his "bad cholesterol" count the "old-fashioned way," through diet and exercise. Research led him to discover the health benefits of Omega 3 fatty acids, and his personal vigilance dialed down the numbers, which have been stabilized through diet and exercise ever since.

Pleased with this success on the health front, he brought the idea of fortifying a Shining Ocean surimi product with Omega 3. Because the white-fleshed fish used to make surimi is naturally low in fat, it is also low in naturally occurring Omega 3. As such, a culinary grade oil is mixed into the blend.

The result is the heart-healthy Crab Smart surimi product. Made with real crab meat, it has 250mg of Omega 3 oil per serving, as well as increased calcium and reduced sodium content. What's more, Crab Smart is naturally low in both fat and carbohydrates.

Shining Ocean also produces Crab Elite and Lobster Elite. The Elite line of products is made from a premium blend of Alaska pollock and Pacific Northwest whiting. Crab Elite contains real crabmeat, whereas Lobster Elite is a chunk-style product with lobster added.

Noting that Shining Ocean lines are selling well, Bleu explained that there are a lot of lower quality products on the market. Price is a big issue for many large foodservice outlets, and it's possible to buy surimi that contains more water and filler than actual seafood.

These lower quality products concern Bleu and others in the industry, both at home and abroad. Price is an important variable, but so is quality and taste. Bleu said that a consumer who tries one inferior product may mistakenly feel that all surimi offerings taste the same.

TransOcean, which has been making surimi seafood since 1985, produces the high-end Crab Classic and Lobster Classic products that contain crab and lobster meat. They are distributed in resealable packaging.

TransOcean is also directly targeting the Hispanic market with Jaiba Supremo. This surimi product is available in both leg and flake style. The company's website states: "Jaiba Supremo features colorful, bilingual packaging that is user-friendly for Hispanics and Latin Americans. The product is a delicious addition to ceviche and other cold salad recipes, and also as an ingredient in fish tacos, casseroles and other hot entrees."

A special family pack size was developed to deliver greater value to end users. Spanish language packaging and value pricing have been identified as selling points within the USA's expanding Hispanic market.

Not to be left out on the pier is the national brand giant, Chicken of the Sea, which introduced an imitation crab product two years ago. "This is the only shelf-stable surimi product in the market," said Van Effner, director of sales and marketing.

The 3.53 ounce single-serve offering has a three-year shelf life. Noting that it is one of 17 seafood pouch products under the Chicken of the Sea label, Effner added that it is the number three best seller.

The sales and marketing director said that the pouch is quite popular with consumers. There is a perception that the product is fresher than alternatives in a can. Chicken of the Sea, unlike other surimi makers, isn't marketing its product as anything different from a seafood salad ingredient. Consumers can find their favorite salad recipe right on the back of the label.

Seafood salad is here to stay, but it is clear that surimi seafood sales will boom once again only on the strong shoulders of product innovation and better consumer marketing.
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Title Annotation:MARKET TRENDS
Author:Wishnow, Sharon J.
Publication:Quick Frozen Foods International
Date:Apr 1, 2006
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