Busan seafood expo a showcase for byproduct innovation

Photo/Bob Tkacz/For the Journal

BUSAN, South Korea — In this seafood-loving country, where annual per capita consumption is more than eight times that of falling United States levels, fish isn’t just for breakfast, lunch and dinner anymore.

With substantial government research support, Korean companies lead the Western Pacific region in development of vitamin supplements, snack foods, makeup and other often high-priced products from fish bones, skin and other byproducts commonly ground into meal by U.S. producers.

Products on display in the “marine bio-tech zone” at the 11th annual Busan International Seafood & Fisheries Exposition, here Nov. 21-23, 2013, included $170 gift sets of lotions, creams and other beauty products made from collagen, a protein extracted from scales of many finfish species and the cartilage of skates, among other sources.

Other innovations threaten the markets of traditional Alaska and other seafood products. Yeongsan exhibited in Busan entirely imitation salmon roe and sturgeon caviar.

Both are manufactured from sodium alginate, a carbohydrate extracted from seaweed (per capita seaweed consumption in South Korea is 27 pounds per year).

Both products look nearly identical to the real fish eggs but, like “all natural” flavoring in many foods, are test tube creations including calcium chloride, Carboxymethyl cellulose and squid ink, according to posters displayed at the Yeongsan expo booth.

The imitation salmon roe contains a small percentage of salmon to provide aroma, Kim said. It is more chewy, and doesn’t pop when bitten like real fish eggs, this reporter found.

At less than $20 and $4, respectively, for 120-gram jars of the sturgeon and salmon substitutes, Kim said the products are sold in North America through a Canadian distributor to Korean communities in Los Angeles and elsewhere. Any volume of product is available on demand.

“Juice” from sea squirts, a relative of tunicate species that have infested and smothered other marine life in Sitka harbors, are distilled into vitamin supplement powders and sold in individual potion packets ready to be mixed with water.

Chitons, a tiny shellfish, are the basic ingredient in all natural, non-polluting skin, food and kitchen cleaning products.

Innovations are driven by economic necessity and the simple desire to make a lot of money.

Danny Kim said his suburban Busan-based Haeser Products Co. developed sea cucumber soap as a new use for excess raw material. That was after sales of 100 percent dried sea cucumbers — a luxury gift food available at $500 per pound — fell in a South Korean economy still recovering from what is widely viewed here as the U.S.-caused economic crash.

The amber-colored soap sells for just more than $13 per cake at duty free gift shops in Korean, Canadian and U.S. airports and the five-star Walkerhill Hotel in Seoul.

After producing fillets and tails from monkfish, a white fish popular in French cuisine as a substitute for lobster, CNFC Zhoushan Marine Fisheries Corp. now turns out $2.40 jars of air-dried, fried, seasoned monkfish bones.

George Tsai, international trading manager for the company, talked about the product as he distributed sample packets at the China Fisheries Expo in November.

Resembling Frito-Lay barbecue corn chips in color, crunchability and taste, the dried bones are sold in China and exported to Russia, according to Tsai.

“We have found kind of a niche market for this,” he said.

In Busan, Dr. Dong-Goong Choi, senior researcher at the Gyeongbuk Institute for Marine Bioindustry, said his staff of 10 Ph.D.s each manages up to three projects accepted by the provincial research center from Korean entrepreneurs.

As often as not, the projects come from Korean university professors who are free to commercialize potentially profitable discoveries found in the course of research conducted with academic “slave labor” of grad students.

The province covers as much as 80 percent of upfront research and development costs for five to seven years, based on project progress, with a general understanding that some level of direct reimbursement or profit sharing will follow a product that becomes commercially viable.

South Korea’s business development/government relationship exists in a loosey-goosey format protected within the country’s rigid traditionalism.

It makes the revolving doors of official/lobbyist Washington, D.C., look positively rigid by comparison and produces occasional national political influence-peddling scandals like the appearance of red tides in Alaska.

Giant “chaebols,” or multi-national business conglomerates, like Samsung, enjoy near monopolistic market control in the country with substantial public support.

Fast food giant McDonald’s is out-sold in only two countries where it operates. Those are the Philippines and Korea, where Lotteria, the quick service restaurant subsidiary of chaebol Lotte Co. Ltd. offers squid, shrimp or beef burgers and fries at outlets found next to most McDonald’s outlets here.

Choi said Gyeongbuk Institute’s acceptance of projects “comes down to capitalization.”

Entrepreneurs must present business plans and demonstrate the financial ability to begin commercial production if research proves up their proposition. But he acknowledged that pre-R&D cost estimates are uncertain.

“They just don’t know how much it’s going to cost at the beginning ... They are starting to see issues there,” Choi said through an interpreter. Most proposals demonstrate their realistic potential, allowing for continuing research, in six months to a year, Choi said.

Gyeongbuk products on display at this year’s Busan expo included “Absolute Water,” a “deep sea” water taken from at least 1,500 meters below the surface and promoted as a high-mineral content drink.

Similar products have been exhibited at past Busan expos in 4-ounce cans available at karaoke bars for their throat-soothing ability. The Gyeongbuk product is only available in pharmacies and used to hospitals for patients needing mineral supplements.

Asked about a health product name identical to the Swedish vodka, Choi smiled and suggested that it can be mixed with the liquor for a healthier beverage.

Other products claim to offer more direct and practical health benefits. South Korea’s business environment is a hard-drinking world where a host is obliged to match a visiting business partner’s after hours proclivity cup-for-cup and get them safely back to their hotel in the wee hours.

Toward that end Simhaero Co. exhibited “Kan Pun An In Sang,” or “Comfortable Liver Life,” and Sok Pun An In Sang,” for stomach health. Both products, made from fermented seaweed and available at less than $5 per packet are available in Russia and China as well as Korea.

Yeongsan Skate Co., producer of the high-ticket makeup and skin care gift sets, also offers a collagen body wash that principle researcher Sang-Ho Kim said lowers blood pressure and reduces cancer cell growth.

Those properties, awaiting confirmation from ongoing Korean university testing expected to be concluded early in 2014, also make it dangerous for pregnant women because it also suppresses fetus development.

Bob Tkacz is a correspondent for the Journal based in Juneau. He can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
11/15/2016 - 3:34pm