Three million cases of canned salmon withheld from sale while the fish is inspected for possible botulism contamination may be sold to South Korean markets, according to Alaskan officials and businessmen.
The salmon, including the product of two Alaskan canneries that the federal government recalled today, is worth about $150 million and represents about 65 percent of last year's production in Alaska.
Alaskan officials say the salmon, or at least a substantial amount of it, must be sold to avert a devastating blow to the state's key fishing industry, which expects a record catch this year.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration officials are attempting to inspect and clear the cans for export, but the widely publicized death in early February of a Belgian man who had eaten from one can has crippled sales in Europe, a principal market for the canned fish.
Alaskan state Sen. Mike Colletta, a Republican from Anchorage, said Thursday he had contacted some South Korean businessmen interested in negotiating purchase of the salmon.
An embargo against the salmon in three European countries, and widespread publicity on the continent means Europeans "are going to be skittish," Colletta said, "but Third World countries, because communications are less efficient, are not frightened by it."
Eric Eckholm, executive director of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, called the proposed sale to Korea "an excellent idea."
The $300 million Alaska salmon industry harvested 110 million fish last year and expects to catch 135 million this year, which will create a sharp drop in prices unless last year's product is sold.
South Korean consumers are accustomed to buying fresh or frozen, but not canned, salmon, "so this would be an excellent opportunity for us to develop a new market," Colletta said.
He suggested food experts at Alaskan universities create special recipes to encourage South Korean housewives to use the unfamiliar product.
Colletta has asked Alaskan Gov. Jay M. Hammond to help persuade the South Korean government to allow importation of the canned salmon.
Hammond has offered to go to Great Britain to argue against the continued embargo of Alaskan canned salmon by Britain, Belgium and the Netherlands, and has recommended suspending the state raw fish tax and increasing state loans to the fishing industry.
Hammond's adviser on international fishery, Clem Tillion, has charged the Europeans with using the botulism scare to cut off Pacific salmon sales and thus protect their Atlantic salmon industry.
After the death of the Belgian man, who had eaten from a 7 3/4-ounce can of Alaskan salmon, the salmon industry warned consumers were warned to check 7 3/4-ounce cans and return any that appeared to have been perforated.
All cans from one plant, Nesco Fidalgo of Ketchikan, Alaska, were recalled, followed by today's recall of cans from two more plants to which federal officials had traced perforated cans.
Roger Coleman, spokesman for the National Food Processing Association in Washington, said so far 21 perforated cans have been discovered but none contained the botulinum spores, which can enter the food through such openings and create the potentially fatal toxin.
An FDA spokesman said five perforated cans have been discovered from the two plants mentioned in today's recall, but none of them was contaminated.
Coleman said the problem had been traced to a faulty can-shaping machine at the Ketchikan plant, one of 58 packing plants in Alaska. The two plants whose cans were recalled today are in Cordova and Egegik.
Coleman said more than half of the three million cases, holding a total of 144 million cans, had been inspected at the Seattle warehouses where they are being kept.
Only 7 3/4-ounce cans are subject to verification program.
"We've got to save this salmon pact; we've got no industry if we don't," said Colletta, who sells janitorial and maintenance and supply equipment for a living. "And the only way we're going to rid of those fish is by knocking door-to-door and unloading it, if necessary, case by case."
He said that although the potential Korean customers would probably pay less than the canned salmon's original selling price, the price would still be better than the sellers would get if they dumped the product on the market in desperation.