Alaska salmon in pouches or cans

Posted: Friday, May 02, 2003

On the WaterfrontBy Elton Engstrom

Dick Hand, of the Alaska Seafood Co., has been in business for 16 years. His plant is located in Lemon Creek, right across from the Alaskan Brewery.

What a fascinating operation he runs. He started with the idea of putting salmon in plastic pouches, sterilizing them in a retort, just like canned salmon. He has added a canned salmon product, packed in six-and-one-half-ounce cans. Just about all of his production is first smoked, so you get the extra benefit of that special taste.

He processes four of the five Pacific salmon - king, chum, silver, and sockeye, with a year-round crew of about 10 people. He has his own brand name, which he sells to retail outlets, but also he does private labeling, which means he does all the work in buying and processing the fish, but then puts on the label of the customer. His biggest clients for private labeling are Sockeye Sam of Ketchikan and Aurora Alaska of Anchorage.

At one time he bought fish directly from the fisherman, but now finds it more convenient to deal with major suppliers like Taku Smokeries of Juneau.

He also does a lot of work for sports fishermen who want to preserve their fish for future consumption, by putting them into a tasty can or pouch. Pouch sizes are 4, 8 and 16 ounces.

He welcomes visitors for a tour of his operation. What makes a visit so memorable is the cornucopia of machinery that makes the finished product possible. Start with the smoker, which can process 500 pounds twice a day. When the fish comes out of the smoker, it is hand-sliced for size. Then, if it goes into pouches, it goes through a vacuum packer. If it goes into a can, it goes through a can seamer, built by National Can Company. Hand calls this piece of machinery his brother, because they both originated in 1946. The can seamer is attached to a vacuum pump, which draws air out of the can, right before the lid is attached.

Then the pouches or cans, separately, go to the steam retort. The steam is furnished by a steam boiler. Twenty-four-hundred cans can be processed at one cook, where the temperature is maintained at 250 degrees Fahrenheit for up to 99 minutes. The pouches require less time at the same temperature because they are thinner, but at least 37 minutes. This is an historic process that has been used by the canning industry in Alaska for more than 100 years to guarantee the safety of the product for the consumer.

In addition to the major pieces of equipment, he has a small, about 1-by-4-foot, labeling machine, built by a man in Poulsbo, Wash., which attaches about 1,200 labels a day around the cans.

Also he has a belt conveyor, which he bought at a sale at the Juneau post office, which carries boxes from the first to the second floor. He has a 40-by-16-foot freezer building to hold frozen product. It is operated by two five-horsepower Copeland compressors, using Freon as a refrigerant.

If you want a real treat, visit your local retailer and ask where is the Alaska Seafood Co. section.

• Elton Engstrom is a lifelong Alaskan, retired fish-buyer, lawyer and legislator (1964-70) who lives in Juneau. He can be reached at 586-1655.

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