Crabless crab legs no longer imitation

If cheese mixed with emulsifiers and other stuff is called "pasteurized process cheese food," what do you call a fish paste made to look like crab meat?

Until now, the Food and Drug Administration has required that the product, known as surimi, be labeled "imitation crab." But after a dozen years of lobbying, the seafood industry has succeeded in getting permission to drop that unappealing description. Instead, it may now use a new, long-winded label: "Crab-flavored seafood, made with surimi, a fully cooked fish protein." The phrase can be adapted for surimi made to resemble lobster, scallops, shrimp and other seafood, as well.

The industry hopes the new label will help increase sales of an odd product that caught on in the boom for ethnic food but which has had flat sales for the past decade. "The word 'imitation' is not as annoying as 'fake,' but we shudder when we hear the word," says John van Amerongen, a spokesman for Trident Seafoods Corp., in Seattle, which sells the Louis Kemp brand of refrigerated and frozen surimi. "Hopefully, people who were turned off by the word 'imitation' will take another look and give it a try." Louis Kemp adds flavor and color to surimi and sells it as Crab and Lobster Delights. Trident also sells the product as Sea Legs.

The surimi name-change shows how even tiny, arcane regulatory changes can have ripple effects on consumers, industries, towns and fishermen. In little Motley, Minn., for example, some residents are hoping that demand for surimi will rise enough to boost employment at the town's surimi-processing plant, already the nation's biggest, employing 275 people. Some fishermen who catch crabs, lobsters and shrimp worry that they'll be hurt because consumers buying surimi may think they're getting the real thing.

The new label applies to products sold in grocery stores, not to food sold at salad bars, delis and restaurants. To fit the 11-word statement onto retail packages, companies may end up using large type for "crab-flavored seafood" and much smaller type for the rest, says Stacey Viera, spokeswoman for National Fisheries Institute, the McLean, Va., seafood-industry group that petitioned the FDA for the change. The FDA says the letters should all be the same size.

The FDA had required that surimi products be labeled "imitation" seafood after the fish paste was first introduced in the U.S. in the late 1970s.

Throughout much of the world, the fish paste is called by its Japanese name, which is pronounced soo-ree-mee and means ground meat. The fish product dates back to the 12th century when Japanese fishermen discovered that fish -- minced, cleaned and salted -- would last much longer than fresh fish. Over the years, surimi products have become a Japanese staple. Kaz Okochi, a native of Japan who is now the chef and owner of KAZ Bistro in Washington, D.C., says he uses surimi in California rolls because crab meat is more expensive but adds little taste.

Today, surimi products are mainly made from lean, white fish such as Alaska pollock and Pacific whiting. After the fish is boned, cleaned and made into a paste, it is chopped and often flavored with starches, egg whites or other additives to make it firm. Colorings are added to make the surimi look like the shellfish it is imitating.

Some fishermen say the new label will hurt their products. "It's not the real thing," says David Cousens, president of Maine Lobstermen's Association. Highlighting "crab/lobster flavored" in the food label would confuse consumers even more, he says. "It's cheaper. It looks the same color. They don't taste the same at all," he says.

From the mid-1980s to mid-1990s, the surimi industry grew by 10 percent to 15 percent every year, according to the industry. Companies largely shrugged off the "imitation" name as their profits soared. In 1987, Loren Morey helped open a surimi plant in his economically depressed hometown of Motley (pop. 667). The plant grew rapidly when it started selling flake-style surimi products that imitate scallops, lobster and other shellfish. Located 1,500 miles from the Pacific Ocean, the plant is now owned by Trident.

Surimi products became increasingly popular as ethnic foods -- sushi particularly but tacos, too -- entered the American diet and more health-conscious consumers looked for convenience foods. Low in fat and high in protein, surimi is used on pizza, in seafood sausages and on salads. It costs just 10 percent or less of what the seafood it imitates does. The U.S. industry now produces 185 million pounds, with an annual wholesale value of $300 million. There are eight surimi companies and 10 plants, mainly clustered in Alaska, Washington and Oregon.

In 1993, the surimi industry petitioned the FDA to drop the "imitation" language, but the agency held firm. FDA regulations require that a food be labeled as "imitation" if it is "a substitute for and resembles another food but is inferior to the food imitated."

"We want to ensure food is safe and properly labeled," says Geraldine A. June, a team leader of the agency's Food Labeling and Standards Staff.

This past May, after consulting FDA officials, the fisheries institute went back to the agency with two recent surveys of 5,000 people indicating that consumers understood that surimi is derived from fish protein and doesn't contain real crab or lobster, Ms. Viera says. In addition, the industry met with members of Congress to ask them to press the case. In October, Alaska Republican Sen. Ted Stevens asked the FDA to consider the institute's request.

After examining the industry research, the FDA decided that the 11-word statement passed the test because it "accurately describes the product." It approved the request to drop "imitation" in a three-page letter dated Nov. 20.

Companies such as Trident plan to launch advertising campaigns to introduce consumers to the new label. Mr. van Amerongen hopes that, eventually, consumers will be comfortable with the word surimi and ask for it.


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