Reprinted with permission from the Alaska Commerce Journal, original story by Naomi Klouda
Americans love their pets and are willing to shell out $23 billion per year on their food, which would be good news for Alaska seafood marketing if more products were developed to serve all those well-cared-for dogs and cats.
Now a treat for dogs made of pollock skins has been developed to the marketing stage, perhaps even allowing for a secondary market in millions of tossed-out pollock skin tonnage to come into its own market at 30 to 50 cents per pound.
The now market-ready product made from vacuum-dried skins developed by Chris Sannito might be just the treat pets have been waiting for.
Sannito, an Alaska Sea Grant seafood technology specialist based at the Kodiak Seafood and Marine Science Center, inherited a research product when he came onboard in 2015. The science center is an arm of the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean sciences.
Pollock skins from billions of pounds of fish go to seagulls and other destinations each year, a food source researchers tinkered with turning into dog treats before Sannito arrived.
The Pollock Conservation Cooperative Research Center (PCCRC), a group that focuses on the commercial fisheries of the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands, is particularly concerned about waste, he said.
“The project was funded, but there were no researchers or staff to work on it,” Sannito said.
The Fulbright scholar looked at the fish skins and the net screens meant to dry them.
“I wondered how would you be able to commercialize something like this, individual pollock skins that weigh fractions of an ounce. It would be so time consuming,” he recalled. “Laying them out on screens and drying them, I thought there’s no way this would work in Alaska where labor is so expensive. There’s got to be a better way.”
Unlike salmon skins whose high oil content makes it a more volatile prospect, pollock skins are low in oil and easier to dry.
In thinking through the first phase, Sannito recalled an extrusion machine he’d seen in action during his graduate days. The researcher had used a Clextral extruder — a machine that pushes material through a barrel — to create a snack of rice flour and fish powder. Cheerios, Lucky Charms, Goldfish snacks — these shapes are all possible from the same process, as well as spiral ropes, like licorice.
Why not try that?
The $500,000 machine is manufactured in France, and ironically, the Kodiak Seafood and Marine Center used to own one in a pilot engineering project. But the University of Alaska Fairbanks, during times of budget cuts, sold it back to Clextral a few years back after it fell into disuse, Sannito said.
One in Tampa, Fla., at the Clextral Food Compliant Pilot Plant, rented for $5,000 a day, Sannito discovered. The machine is 10 feet tall by 15 feet long and has a giant high-torque electric motor that grinds a 10-foot barrel with a twin screw.
He made the arrangements, scheduled trials for a day in July 2016 and sent 500 pounds of frozen fish waste via FedEx to Tampa.
“We ran the skins through an extruder and it transformed them under high pressure and temperature, turning the collagen in the skin into gummy bear texture,” he said.
Glycerine with water, wheat flour and fish skins achieved the right consistency.
“The beauty of it: it goes in wet and comes out dry. In the extrusion barrels there are nine different chambers that at the end applies a strong vacuum,” Sannito said. “It has an adjustable valve to get material from soft gummy bear to a hard pasta noodle based on the vacuum pressure. It’s neat because you have precise control.”
Sannito chose the tooling to get a licorice-like spiral that came out an Army green. During the day of experimenting at the plant, he applied artificial and natural coloring to look at red and blue versions of the treat.
“We decided to keep it the natural Army green,” he said. “It seemed healthier and we wanted clean labels, a wholesome product. Pet owners read labels for their dogs like they do for themselves.”
The end result was a nicer looking product that retained the pungent fish smell dogs love so much. Back when it was just dried skins, dogs like the pollock treats just as well, Sannito said. But he reasoned a more attractive product would likely sell better off store shelves.
Back in Kodiak he taste-tested on lots of Kodiak dogs.
“This is a dog town so there’s no shortage,” he said. “I didn’t find anyone who turned it down.”
The treats are shelf-stable when they come off the machine. All 500 pounds of skins, now dried licorice-shaped treats, came back to Kodiak with Sannito in stand-up re-sealable pouches.
Most all of it is gone now, eaten by the local taste-testers, he said.
In January, Sannito presented his research results to the PCCRC. Several faculty from UAF sit on the board, one of them is Dean Bradley Moran, head of the College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences and Sannito’s supervisor.
The dean was impressed.
On May 5, 2017 Sannito and Quentin Fong, Alaska Sea Grant’s seafood marketing specialist, received the 2017 Invent Alaska Award for “innovation in research leading to commercialization.”
It was presented by the UAF Office of Intellectual Property and Commercialization.
The next step is to find industry partners to develop a commercial product, with a name and graphics for the package labels, Sannito said.
The PCCRC board is more interested in research than commercialization of the resulting products, but UAF’s interest was piqued after the January presentation.
Sannito is in the process of licensing the product with the Intellectual Property Office. The university offers a generous 50-50 split with its researchers on the patents created by the UAF faculty.
Partnerships also would create a new market for the tons of fish skin going to waste out at sea where some processors grind and discharge it, or at landed canneries where a separate machine de-skins the fish before tossing out the waste.
“Any coastal community is awash in fish skins wherever they process a large amount of skinless boneless filets,” Sannito said.
White fish varieties would work equally well. He envisions a full-scale operation would pay costs to processors for handling and freezing the fish skins and selling them to the dog treat manufacturing operation.
“I think they would be tickled pink to be able to sell it 30 or 50 cents a pound,” Sannito said.
Sammy, his own finicky-eating golden retriever, enjoys the fish-skin snacks. But he’s running out soon.
“It’s time to make more,” Sannito said.