Seafood Industry Fighting Obstacles to Greater Consumer Acceptance

Most segments of the seafood industry have earned the right to a small amount of smugness now that their commodities routinely receive respect and attention on both the health and culinary fronts.

But despite the image gains, there remain significant blocks of consumers who would rather bring home a winter cold than endure preparing fish themselves, according to one analyst.

"Again and again it comes up (in consumer research). People say, 'It's not can I cook fish, but do I have to send the draperies to the cleaners after I cook them?' " said Woodman Harris, a seafood industry consultant, in a seminar at Sea Fare '87, a trade show recently held at the Long Beach Convention Center.

"That they don't like the smell is the biggest reason people give for not preparing fish at home," he said.

Discussion of the odor problem was one of several ways Harris let the assembled processors, wholesalers and retailers know that the seafood industry still has many obstacles to greater acceptance. He urged distributors to work on eliminating such problems, which are stunting more widespread sales inroads at a time when seafood's popularity is at a peak.

Reflecting the increased interest, more than 6,500 people attended the three-day event, which brought together representatives from around the nation and several foreign countries. In addition to seminars, there were about 400 exhibits of seafood and related products.

Several speakers noted that the industry should make greater efforts to eliminate poor quality or risk losing momentum and credibility with the public. The unpleasant fishy scent, for instance, occurs primarily with fish that have either been improperly stored or have long since passed their prime.

Part of the reason for the undesirable aging is the markets' insistence on so-called fresh fish as opposed to frozen fish, which are often in superior condition.

"Few consumers realize that it can take a fresh fish as much as 21 days from the moment it is caught to actually reach the consumer," said Jon Rowley, a Seattle-based restaurant consultant.

For comparison, some frozen fish are processed just hours after being netted. Even so, selling this type of fish at premium prices is difficult because of past perceptions, he said.

"Frozen still has a stigma--with good reason. Some companies in the past froze fish just before they were to go bad. The product was thawed out at a later date and then sold. The memory of that stuff still lingers with the public," Rowley said.

In addition to the quality issue, Harris was troubled with the general lack of innovation.

"We are feeding fish to kids at school that makes them sick. They won't eat anything from the whole category (of seafood) until they're 30," he said. "The seafood companies need to introduce fish products especially for children. Make it in shapes, call it cartoon-like names--just as the cereal industry has been marketing to that segment for years."

Coho on Rye--The analysts were not alone in criticizing seafood companies for failing to innovate.

"We need new products in the fish business. Right now the only categories are fresh, frozen and smoked. We need new markets," said Runar Nicodemusse, president of Salmoroll, a Norwegian firm. "If you don't develop new things you might as well retire."

Nicodemusse did not include himself among those facing retirement because he is in the midst of introducing a salmon salami, an item with substantial potential. The product, Salmoroll, is intended as a luncheon meat and is 90% Norwegian salmon. The pink, soft-textured blend also contains some shrimp and can be sliced for sandwiches, served as an appetizer or as a breakfast food.

Nicodemusse received an enthusiastic response for the cholesterol-free Salmoroll at his Sea Fare exhibit. He said it would be available within a few weeks throughout the Southern California market, but he couldn't be sure where in the supermarket consumers would find the product.

"We really don't know if it will be placed in the meat counter with other luncheon products or in the fish counter or somewhere in between," he said. "It can also be considered a health product because it won't be cheap."

Attention Maine--While the Norwegians were busy turning salmon into luncheon rolls, a San Francisco-based firm was busy perfecting imitation lobster.

Under its Sea Legs trademark brand, the Berelson Co. debuted its three-ounce lobster tails that are made from surimi, the highly processed and reformed fish paste made from Alaskan pollock. There have been a few attempts by other companies to expand the imitation shellfish category beyond crab and shrimp, but most efforts have been unsatisfactory.

The Sea Legs version is apparently state-of-the-art lobster mimicry, according to a company representative.

"We've gotten a fantastic response to the lobster. Even our competitors have come over to our exhibit and congratulated us," said Ron Magnin, national sales representative for Sea Legs. "People are saying that it's amazing that it is so similar in taste and texture to lobster."

The difficulties formulating an imitation lobster product have been attributed to duplicating the unique textures of the shellfish. In particular, copying the outer, thin membrane that encloses the flaky meat proved troubling.

"Our product most closely resembles both textures found in a lobster tail," said Jerry Goldman, a broker who markets Sea Legs products in Illinois. "That's why we waited so long. . . . The technology to make a lobster product was there, but it just wasn't good enough to come to market with."

The company is in the process of making the lobster tails available to both the restaurant and supermarket industries.

Magnin said there was no shortage of ideas for how to serve a three-inch lobster-like tail.

"I broil it for five to 10 minutes and then serve it on a plate instead of baked potato when I'm having steak. But that's because I don't like baked potatoes," he said.

Flattering Squid--Another imitation that shows imagination was developed in New Zealand by La Conner Seafood. In this instance, barracuda is formed into a paste with some squid for flavor, shaped into a what looks like an onion ring and then breaded.

The final product is now being marketed as squid rings, which come ready for deep-frying.

Response to the processed barracuda was positive. "We're amazed," said Joe Cilberto of La Conner.

Barracuda was selected because it is an underutilized fish species, which is readily available in the South Seas. Cilberto added that underutilized does not necessarily mean "cheap."

The novelty of using squid-flavored barracuda meat to make what looks like an onion ring led Cilberto to claim that his product may be the first double-imitation.

Please see related story on Sea Fare '87 on Page 29.

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