Sorce eyes growth of Copi market, future expansion of his business
Roy Sorce envisions his fishing business on the Illinois River leading the way toward establishing Greater Peoria as a center of excellence in what he calls a “blue economy.”
About three years ago, Sorce converted his family's food service company in East Peoria into catching and processing operation for Asian carp.
Sorce is now looking to expand the business in the coming years, and grow a wider market for food products made from the invasive species that's since been rebranded as “Copi.”
He says they are still working at a key, critical step in building interest and changing the reputation of their product.
“The most important thing that people need to understand about Copi – previously Asian carp but (now) Copi – is that they are a very healthy fish,” said Sorce. “They are the second healthiest fish you consume; the only healthier fish is wild caught salmon, but Copi is lower in contaminants than wild caught salmon.
“So if you use this Copi in your diet, you're actually eating several grams of protein. They’re heart healthy, and they're high in Omega-6s (fatty acids). They have all nine essential amino acids. So there's really no negative part to eating these fish.”
Sorce says the progress his business has already made in a short time indicates the potential for greater success in the future.
“In the beginning, we were just a fish receiving location,” he said. “Then in 2021, we started to do a light processing; (in) 2022, we actually started developing items that are ready to use – everything from a slider to an empanada to a Rangoon and many other items. So we've developed many marketable items that the average consumer can purchase in different locations, hopefully coming soon.”
U.S. Rep. Darin LaHood, R-Dunlap, toured the Sorce facility along the Illinois River last week to get a feel for how the operation works.
“There are many things I admire about the river, but being here today and seeing how Sorce Industries is taking advantage of cleaning up the river (and) getting rid of Asian carp – but secondly, creating a market for sale of Copi fish. And also using it for fertilizer, I had no idea of the byproducts that can be produced from Asian carp,” said LaHood. “So to be here today and see this business that is growing and thriving, and the opportunity they have for the future, I think is remarkable.”
Sorce said the tour offered an opportunity to demonstrate their daily routine to LaHood, and to discuss ways to build interest in Copi.
“We showed him what we started out as, which was a fishing cooperative with a processing center that has grown and evolved into an industry that can actually feed people, especially those in need but also around the whole globe,” said Sorce.
“It's also good for the economy and it's great for creating jobs and (for) the environment. So there are no negative aspects of this, and that's what Darin saw today. That's what's very important to us, are those three aspects: creating jobs, protecting the environment, and feeding those in need and other people.”
Sorce says their primary product focus is developing food items for human and pet consumption. But as part of their “blue economy” vision, they strive for zero waste and produce something out of each part of the fish.
“Fertilizer is the lowest rung on the ladder as I call it,” he said. “The next lowest rung is bait, which is utilized everywhere from Louisiana to the East Coast and the West Coast. These fish can be utilized for crab, crawfish, lobster, and all different kinds of commercial fishing processes.”
Sorce says they do need some regulatory changes to help get Copi on the tables for more people, notably public school students.
“The biggest change we need is that right now schools have on their menus that they can purchase ‘ground’ product. Our product is not ground; ground means you're taking those bones and things like that and grinding them into the protein. We're removing all that, so we call it a ‘minced’ product, which is much cleaner and much healthier for you,” said Sorce.
At the end of the tour, LaHood got a chance to sample some of the Copi food products from Sorce Industries. He said he intends to see what he can do to help in getting the language changed to allow schools to serve minced Copi.
“We are going to reauthorize the Farm Bill, which we do every five years in Washington, D.C. – that has to be done by the end of this year. What I talked to them here today is looking at opportunities in the Farm Bill, which deals with all different types of nutrition programs,” said LaHood. “It deals with, obviously, the USDA – U.S. Department of Agriculture – and figuring out how we can market Asian carp. Because when you try the product, which I did today, it's actually delicious.”
Sorce says they are exploring the possibility of opening another facility along the river, potentially further south in East Peoria.
“It won't happen this year, but we are actually looking for property right now and working with the city and other cities around this area to grow to our next level so we can then develop these items into more marketable products here locally as opposed to just co-packing them out,” said Sorce.
“We would then be making some of these human consumable products or pet consumable products here, because as we grow some of the companies we work with won't be able to handle the volume. We want to make sure they still stay in place because they were good partners in the beginning (and) they'll always be partners of ours. But we want to be able to expand the market to as large as it will accommodate.”
Sorce says his operation is also beneficial to the Illinois River from an environmental standpoint, as well as economically for the fishermen who work on the Peoria-area section of the river.
“As we harvest these fish, the biomass changes from a large number of fish to a smaller number of fish – but larger fish in size. But they do a service to clean the waterways, which allows other fish – non-commercial fish, your game fish – to actually thrive and grow and become a much stronger population,” said Sorce.
“The economic impact for fishermen has been astronomical. They used to fish 5-6 days a week for a very, very small wage; we'll call it, they would only make about $40,000 a year average. Now our average fisherman probably makes over $100,000 a year, some of them much higher than that on an individual basis.”