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New FDA Label Clarifies 'Alaska Pollock'


March 1, 2016

Gorton's confirms that its breaded fish sticks are made with 100 percent wild-caught pollock from Alaska waters. Photo by Margaret Bauman.

To be labeled "Alaska pollock" the mild flavored white fish, employed by chefs in everything from seafood salads to fish sticks and filets, must now be harvested from Alaska waters.

Otherwise, says the US Food and Drug Administration, is simply "pollock."

The FDA updated its seafood List on Jan. 21 to reflect that change, recognizing a mandate by Congress in the fiscal year 2016 Omnibus Appropriations that only pollock caught in Alaskan waters or the exclusive economic zone, (as defined in Section 3 of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act,) adjacent to Alaska can be called Alaskan pollock.

The change, effective immediately, was hailed by harvesters and processors of Alaska pollock, who said they hope the new labeling will help consumers to choose Alaska sourced pollock products over competing Russian pollock.

Alaska pollock, also known as walleye pollock, is the largest by volume wild fishery in the United States, and one of the largest fisheries in the world.

Processors of Alaska pollock estimate the industry's annual value at over $700 million, with direct employment of some 5,000 workers.

pollock is high in protein, with heart healthy omega-3 fatty acids. With its mild flavor and delicate, flaky texture, pollock is consumed in a variety of forms, from fresh and frozen fillets and fish sticks to other battered fish and surimi products. Surimi is made by mincing and washing the fillets and then adding other ingredients to stabilize the protein in the fish, so it can be frozen for long periods of time.

pollock is primarily harvested by trawl vessels, towing nets through the middle of the water column, and the industry has attracted some criticism for the incidental catch of other species not targeted. Some of these vessels deliver their catch to mother ships or shoreside processors, while others, the catcher/processors, process and freeze their harvest at sea.

The fishery has met with strict standards for sustainability, earning certification from the Alaska seafood Marketing Institute's Alaska Responsible Fisheries Management program, as well as the Marine Stewardship Council.

"We are the gold standard for sustainability," said Pat Shanahan, program director for the Association of Genuine Alaska pollock Producers. "When you buy our product you know where it's from, where it's been. Superior quality and sustainability are things any consumer might be interested in."

A consumer research study done by the pollock Producers showed that the vast majority of consumers, when they heard the name "Alaska pollock" assumed it was a US product, but they also said they were misled if they found out later it was from a different country, Shanahan said.

"It was the right thing to do for consumers and processors," she said. "It's accurate. It corrects a problem that has existed for a very long time. We think it will be very useful because (now) we can differentiate."

Jim Gilmore, speaking for the At-Sea Processors Association, said they are appreciative of the work of the Washington State and Alaska congressional delegations in getting the name change approved by the FDA.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who has worked to change the market name of pollock, said she was "thrilled that this change has been made to protect both our fisheries and consumers.

"It is disingenuous and harmful to our fishing industry for Russian-harvested pollock to be passed off as Alaskan," she said."

Gilmore agreed. "We think it is confusing to a consumer trying to figure out the providence of their seafood, if they can call Russian pollock Alaska pollock," he said.

"It is a question of a very different processing method. When fish comes out of Alaska it is frozen once before it comes out on a consumer's plate," Gilmore said, the Russian fish is frozen in the round when it comes on to their vessels, then refrozen in China after it is filleted.

"The vast majority of Russian produce is twice frozen," Shanahan said. "Just the twice freezing process will have inferior texture, taste and aroma. I have looked at them side by side and I don't think you have to be an expert to tell the difference," she said.

"Often in twice frozen they use moisture retention agents, the most popular being sodium tripolyphosphate. These additives help fish frozen twice to retain moisture, but they can be misused to help fish retain too much moisture, which can affect taste and texture," she said.

pollock from both Alaska and Russian is popular in a number of ready to heat and eat frozen products.

Gloucester, Massachusetts-based Gorton's, ( a subsidiary of the Japanese seafood conglomerate Nippon Suisan Kaisha Ltd., produces a number of seafood products, including fish sticks, which a company spokesperson confirmed are made of minced pollock harvested in Alaska waters.

Gorton's notes on its website the sources of all seafood used in its products, including pollock from Alaska's Eastern bering sea and Russia's Sea of Okhotsk. Gorton's also sources cod from Russia's Barents Sea and bering sea waters off Alaska.

Gorton's said in response to a query that pollock and cod sourced from different locations are not comingled. "Some of our products do call out Alaska pollock," the company said. "Based on the new FDA regulation, moving forward only packages with products from Alaska will have that specific callout. If noted, other items will simply say 'pollock'. As noted earlier, all of the pollock used in our Gorton's fish sticks is pollock from Alaska," the company said.

New Jersey-based Pinnacle Foods, which owns Van De Kamp's and Mrs. Paul's, responded to a query by saying "our fish remains separate throughout the process and we can trace our fish down to the vessel." Pinnacle did not respond specifically to which of its products employed pollock harvested in Alaska waters.

Until the FDA's recent ruling, ingredients on all these products could legally include the words "Alaska pollock," without specifying whether the fish was actually sourced from Alaska.


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