Shifting Baselines

Surimi: You’re Suspect

Who: Surimi

Here Spanish surimi poses as baby eels, which have been overfished (photo courtesy of M. Hirshfield).

What: A pulverized fish product that has been shaped, texturized, and flavored to resemble some other fish product. Gobal surimi production is estimated to be between 550,000 and 600,000 tonnes, with approximately half of all surimi made with Alaska pollock. Other species used for surimi include mackerels, hoki, blue whiting and cod.

When: According to Wikipedia, surimi was developed in East Asia 900 years ago. Japan industrialized the surimi process in the 1960s. Over the last decade, surimi has become increasingly popular as the fish it imitates have further declined.

Where: The largest surimi producers are the U.S., Thailand and Japan. The main surimi markets are Japan and Korea, although the U.S. and some EU countries, such as France, also consume substantial quantities of surimi.

How: Pulverizing, of course. Beyond that, this year the U.S. FDA caved to seafood lobbyists and they allowed ‘imitation crab’ (i.e., surimi) to drop the ‘imitation’. In surimi, I hear echoes of the woman who sued Kraft foods over the scanty amount of avocado in their guacamole.

Why: Because the things we would really like to eat, like real crab legs or real baby eels, are overfished and/or too expensive (duh). A half million tonnes of pulverized fish shaped into things humans really want to eat, just another shifting baseline.

Read more here.


  1. #1 Janne
    July 26, 2007

    And this is bad why, exactly? The only negative I see is the hint that some markets will allow it to be sold as the “real” thing without divulging the actual source. But that’s a general issue about truth in advertising. By itself I fail to see how this is negative.

  2. #2 Milan
    July 26, 2007

    One problem is that it conceals scarcity and allows over-exploitation to continue. We can keep substituting similar products for a while (continuing a pattern of depletion), though doing so is likely to encourage a level of complacency that prevents more sustainable approaches.

    Of course, the rising price of the real thing will frequently reward exactly this sort of deceptive substitution…

  3. #3 Janne
    July 26, 2007

    Well, it avoids scarcity by substituting something else, and in a way that doesn’t induce hardship on the customers. As long as it’s in the open it’s a good thing. Japanese chikuwa and kamaboko, or french kroquilles (or the plain fish balls and fish paste of scandinavia) are all excellent example of this not being some second-rate food. And of course, factory production is greatly preferred over home-made for environmental reasons.

  4. #4 Jostein (Alunfoto)
    July 26, 2007

    I get an itch when Janne describes Scandinavian fish-balls as “not second rate”, but tastes differ, I suppose.

    Along the same lines, however: How much of the pulverised fish is actually for human consumption, as opposed to animal feed?

  5. #5 Kevin Z
    July 26, 2007

    oh yummy! Fiskbullar! Brings back memories of last summer camping in central Sweden. Very foul stuff indeed, but terrific camping food, lots of protein.

    I am unsure about the comment that factory produced pseudofish is better than homemade? Can you elaborate on what you mean?

  6. #6 Janne
    July 28, 2007

    Well, fishballs (fiskbullar) do differ; most people seem to encounter only the rock-bottom price, rock-bottom quality version they serve in primary school, but believe it or not, well-done fiskbullar really is a delicacy.

    About the “factory produced is better than homemade” comment: It’s really the same situation as for other kinds of manufacturing in general, and exemplified in its purest form in energy production. To create a certain amount of energy in a useful form, it’s much preferably to have one big generator – a power plant – rather than many small ones, like vehicle engines, even when the basic process of generation is the same. A large plant can increase output efficiency, and can clean up its waste to a degree that is impractical or impossible for a small plant – a plant that in addition needs to be safe and reliable even in the absence of a competent handler.

    The same reasoning goes for any number of activities, like making and dying cloth for example: The environmental impact of millions of people doing this on their own – with no chemical-specific waste treatment (and often little or no realization that there is in fact a major impact even with “natural” ingredients), using much more energy for the output, and with much greater material waste in the process means that factory-produced cloth leaves less impact even when you add a bit of extra transportation costs (costs that by themselves are questionable; you need to distribute the materials to people after all). And the same goes for food production, especially this kind, where both the desired product and the process itself is very standardized and there isn’t much scope for anybody to improve on it from a cooking perspective in a meaningful way.

  7. #7 Jennifer Jacquet
    August 2, 2007

    This is a good point. The weirdness of surimi (in terms of a wannabe) is nothing compared to the weirdness (rather, horrifying wastefulness) of fishmeal for animals. About a half million tons of fish are used each year to make surimi while 30 million tons (36 percent of wild fisheries production) are turned into fishmeal to feed animals. I’ve written on this subject and why, to save our ocean, we should Eat Like a Pig.

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