GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The Michigan Department of Natural Resources isn’t on board with the Asian carp name change but one of West Michigan’s largest food service companies is buying in.
Officials with Gordon Food Service confirmed the company is working to find a supplier to sell Asian carp products.
“It’s great. It’s excellent. I could put it in front of you tomorrow and say, ‘Hey, try this fish cake.’ And you would think it was a mild white fish,” Kelly Smallegan-Maas of GFS told News 8.
Asian carp — an invasive species in the U.S. that is a threat to decimate the Great Lakes ecosystem — is the most commonly eaten freshwater fish across the world. It has been farmed in China for centuries. But for whatever reason, the American consumers have never given it a try.
Last month, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources officially changed the name of Asian carp in an attempt to change the stigma around the fish’s name. Common carp are bottom feeders that have a notably muddy taste. The four different species identified as Asian carp are top feeders and have a light taste that blends well with different kinds of marinades and spices. The new name — copi — is short for copious, a fitting name considering Asian carp now dominate the Mississippi River system, including some water environments where they make up 70% of the ecosystem’s fish population. The Illinois DNR wants to rein in the population by encouraging fishermen to target the fish and for people to eat it.
Smallegan-Maas is the director of Gordon Food Services’ North American brands. She said her team has been researching Asian carp products for more than a year now and is confident consumers will get on board.
“(It’s) totally malleable, can bend to any flavor profile,” she said of Asian carp. “I tried it in a Southwestern style. I tried it as more of an Asian mix, an Italian kind of cake version and it melded well with all of those culinary and spice profiles.”
Taste aside, she believes American eaters will be attracted to the health benefits of copi. It is second only to wild salmon in protein content and is high in both Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids. Since they eat primarily plankton and vegetation, they have little to no mercury or lead.
“It’s just a good product,” Smallegan-Maas said.
GFS isn’t currently offering any copi products. Smallegan-Maas said it will take time for more fishing companies to start targeting the fish and align with a processor to develop recipes. She expects the first product won’t be filets, but rather some form of fish cake comprised of Asian carp.
“It is a very difficult fish to commercialize. And the reason is it’s a very, very bony fish, lots of little pin bones. And so it makes it extremely labor intensive and difficult to filet like you would some other fish,” Smallegan-Maas said. “That has been one of the challenges we are focused on, figuring out a food service production process that keeps the integrity of the fish intact, reduces the best amount of waste they can, and make it profitable.”
She says it’s not just about selling a profitable product. GFS believes the company can play a role in fighting the invasive species.
“We are food people. We support the idea of being able to eat an invasive species and what that represents for the culinary community and what it represents for the Great Lakes,” Smallegan-Maas said.
The Asian carp products are part of a program called GoodFinds. It’s a GFS program committed to finding farmers and foods that are going above and beyond to help people and the planet.
“We see ourselves as part of this equation,” she said.
Following the copi announcement, the Michigan DNR told News 8 that it wasn’t on board with the name change. It supports the idea of encouraging people to eat the fish but is worried that the name change will cause confusion and make it more likely that Asian carp find their way into the Great Lakes.
“We don’t want to see people bringing in live fish to Michigan,” Joanne Foreman of the Michigan DNR’s Invasive Species program told News 8. “We also don’t want people to get the idea that it might be a good thing to stock those fish so they can sell them fresh themselves. So it’s really important to draw the line that the name change still does not change the prohibition on live fish in Michigan.”
There are several restrictions in place to try and prevent Asian carp from making it into the Great Lakes, including the Brandon Road Lock & Dam in Illinois. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is working on a project to extend and strengthen the barriers to keep them out.
“Ultimately, what we’re looking for is not just a way to slow down the Asian carp population. We really would like to eradicate the fish and it’s going to take time and a lot of science to get there,” Foreman said. “I’ve heard the phrase used, ‘If you can’t beat them, eat them.’ We don’t want to give up on the battle against invasive carp. We believe that we still need funding to support the Brandon Road Lock & Dam Project. We’re looking to build additional barriers and use new technologies to prevent those fish from getting into the Great Lakes.”
Smallegan-Maas believes the name change can still be effective and continue the fight to protect the Great Lakes.
“We want to tell the culinary community that this is our chance to do good with food,” Smallegan-Maas said. “We want to preserve those resources and we want to preserve the diversity of species in those waterways. (We want to be) part of the solution, but there are many tools in the toolbox.”
There is currently no timeline for when any copi products will be available for purchase through GFS.