Maynard Steinberg doesn't remember now who in the Seattle office of the National Marine Fisheries Service first figured out how to get millions of pounds of pollock out of Alaskan waters and onto supermarket shelves. But he still supports the idea as if it were his own.
In its simplest form, the plan goes like this: if the average American consumer, who eats about 80 hot dogs a year, is reluctant to eat a plentiful, nutritious, but little-known fish like pollock, fine. Let 'em eat hot dogs.
But let's put fish in some of the hot dogs first.
After several years of studying, manufacturing sample hot dogs with fish, chemical tests, taste tests and one formal petition to the Agriculture Department -- since withdrawn -- the idea has yet to gain a toehold on the regulatory treadmill to approval of a hot dog that's up to 15 percent fish.
To get an idea of how long that treadmill might be, consider the hot dog controversies of the past: the fight put up by meat interests in the late 1960s when USDA first permitted chicken as a limited ingredient in hot dogs; the fight a few years later when hot dogs' fat content was limited to 30 percent; the argument over inclusion of up to 2 percent soy protein, or last year's fight over how to label hot dogs containing some mechanically deboned meat.
No one knows if there will be a fish fight. The fish supporters at the Commerce Department's fisheries service and the private National Fisheries Institute say all they're doing is research on the characteristics and marketability of the fish franks.
But their research is specifically designed to answer the questions the USDA raised about a 1980 petition -- from a Commerce Department consulting firm -- to change the standard of identity on hot dogs to allow them to be up to 15 percent fish. There have been several recent meetings on the subject between the bureaucrats at the fisheries service and fisheries institute officials, as well as several phone calls from Commerce to USDA to see how the poultry people handled their hot dog campaign more than a decade ago.
"We feel at this point we have sufficient data to meet the concerns identified by USDA in 1980, said Dick Gutting, an institute official. "What's been happening is that officials of the NMFS have been meeting with representatives of the institute to identify what information needs to be gathered now and discuss a possible course of action for resubmitting a petition."
"The Alaskan pollock resource is perhaps this country's largest opportunity to expand our fishing industry," Gutting added. "We have about 2 billion pounds a year being fished by foreign fleets inside the 200-mile limit established by Congress in 1976 . . . . There are Japanese, South Koreans, Taiwanese. The Japanese harvest it offshore and process it offshore. What they produce is a basic source of protein for the Japanese public."
The Japanese, however, eat about four times as much fish each year as Americans. Before Alaskan fishermen can reclaim the pollock harvest from the foreigners, fish-processing facilities must be ready to take the perishable product and turn it into blocks of frozen minced fish.
And before fish processors are willing to invest in the plants or factory vessels, they want a market. That's what food scientist Maynard Steinberg, now retired, was working on. "We've always had some interest in school-lunch programs and things like that," he said. But experimental meat-and-fish patties tasted too fishy, "so we thought we'd try a product with more flavor of its own."
Hot dogs, he said, have "great promise for the public and the meat processors. Of course, it would be helpful to the U.S. fishing industry, too."
Not so helpful, perhaps, to the beef and pork producers who supply meat processors, or the poultry producers whose chicken and turkey dogs made up about 13 percent of the 926 million hot dogs that Oscar Mayer & Co. estimates were sold at retail stores in the year ending last March 31.
It is the reaction of these industries, as much as the reaction of the American consumer, that has made the Commerce Department wary about plans to propose a fishy frankfurter. Among other problems, the same Agriculture Department that controls the contents of hot dogs is the client agency for the beef, pork and poultry producers.
"I think an important component of our decision would be how consumers react to this -- whether they expect fish in hot dogs," said Daniel Jones, chief of the standards branch in USDA's Standards and Labeling Division. "Another thing we would have to take into consideration is whether the meat industry wants this. It's going to affect the image of their products, and we have to be sensitive to that."