Sometimes regulation is an "and/or" thing. Especially when it comes to surimi.
The Food and Drug Administration, responding to the entreaties of makers of surimi--a Japanese term describing deboned fish washed with water--will allow companies to use a single label to describe the many kinds of fish that may, or may not, be in surimi.
Before the FDA decision, surimi makers had to follow the government's standard food-labeling policy: Ingredients are listed on the product in descending order of weight. In this case, each kind of fish processed into surimi had to be listed on the label. If the catch of the day was pollock, whiting and cod, that's what the label had to say. If cod disappeared from the mix, the label had to reflect the change in ingredients.
For the past year, the surimi lobby had enlisted the aid of members of Congress and major seafood companies to push for the labeling change. Led by the National Fisheries Institute, surimi makers said it is too costly to keep an inventory of labels that must constantly change to meet the FDA's labeling law. They claimed it cost up to $3.2 million annually to keep enough labels on hand to reflect every fish that goes into surimi.
Surimi is commonly found in cold seafood salad and is also used to imitate the texture and flavor of crab, scallops and lobster. The industry has increased fourfold over the past decade, and an estimated 160 million pounds are sold annually, up from 50 million pounds a decade ago. That means, on average, every man, woman and child in the United States eats about half a pound of surimi a year, according to industry statistics.
Made from a variety of fish--including Alaskan pollock, Pacific whiting, cod and arrowtooth flounder--the end product is cheaper than real shellfish, and industry experts say there is a niche market here for surimi--though nothing like the one that exists in Japan. "It's a nice option for the consumer to have," said Robert Collette, vice president of science and technology for the fisheries institute.
The FDA labeling rules drove surimi makers crazy because of fishing limits on what their suppliers can catch, the seasonality of the catch and the short shelf life of surimi. Wouldn't it be easier, the industry argued, if the labels could simply say that surimi contains one or more of the following: pollock, cod and/or Pacific whiting?
"A piece of flounder, cod, pollock. It's pretty hard to tell one from the other," said Roland Chambers, chairman of the fisheries institute's surimi committee and general manger for Louis Kemp Seafood Co. "We've found as long as they [consumers] understand it's fish, they aren't concerned about species."
His company told the FDA that Louis Kemp uses as many as three different fish and has approximately 220 labels for its various branded and private-label products.
Part of the industry's appeal for labeling relief was stressing to the FDA that surimi is unrecognizable as fish flesh because the main component of it is "a washed, dehydrated slurry, devoid of color, odor, texture and taste."
In painstaking detail, the industry gave the agency a lesson in surimi making, explaining the manufacturing process that includes on a flow chart 44 steps from delivery of fish to the plant to cold storage. In between, there is sorting, skinning, filleting, mincing, washing, pressing, mixing, extruding, flaking, freezing, baking and a few other steps.
Lots of things were discussed before the FDA made a final decision on surimi labeling. There was the issue of whether it would be better to say "may contain" rather than "and/or." That was shot down. And the National Food Processors Association asked whether an "and/or" listing of ingredients could be applied to more traditional processed fish products, such as fish sticks and fish ingredients that go into soups and stews. The FDA said it didn't think so.
But the biggest battle was over calling surimi not "surimi" but "fish protein" on the label. The FDA's final call was that "and/or" could be used to list the various species of fish but the label would read, for example, "fish protein (contains one or more of the following: Pollock, cod, and/or Pacific whiting)."
The industry and its allies thought this was smelly. It reminded them of a fertilizer product. But the surimi interests got nowhere on this, even though they suggested "fish blend" or just plain "fish" would be a useful characterization for consumers.
Nope. Said the FDA: "According to the petition, the ingredient used in surimi is processed fish muscle tissue that has been totally decharacterized. . . . Consequently, the basic nature of the food is no longer 'fish' as is commonly understood by consumers."
Chambers said the industry is likely to ask the agency to look at the fish-protein issue again.
And surimi makers may one day have an even bigger fish to fry with government regulators.
The producers would like the removal of the requirement that packages state that surimi is "imitation" shellfish, though currently that labeling requirement is a flag to consumers that the product they are buying isn't shellfish but is dressed up to taste like shellfish. It's also a labeling regime that fresh-fish interests have insisted on over the years.
"They would like a name that is not misleading but meaningful to consumers," said Collette. In Canada and other countries, packages carry descriptions for surimi such as "crab-flavored seafood."
"Our labeling regulations are a little bit behind the rest of the world and a little confusing to consumers," Chambers said.