Of all the things that millennials have killed — bar soap, “Breastaurants,” fabric softener, doorbells — their newest victim is a perplexingly unsolved murder. A Wall Street Journal article about the tuna industry alleges that millennials are killing it — not because they don’t like eating fish, but because they don’t own can openers.
“In a country focused on convenience, canned tuna isn’t cutting it with consumers. Many can’t be bothered to open and drain the cans, or fetch utensils and dishes to eat the tuna,” Jesse Newman and Annie Gasparro wrote.
“A lot of millennials don’t even own can openers,” Andy Mecs, vice president of marketing and innovation for Pittsburgh-based StarKist, a subsidiary of South Korea’s Dongwon Group, told the Journal. The story acknowledged that sales of fresh and frozen tuna were on the rise: “Just 32 percent of consumers aged 18 to 34 recently bought canned fish or shellfish, compared with 45 percent of those 55 years old and older, according to market-research firm Mintel.”
This raised a couple of questions for millennials. If they’re too lazy to use can openers, why are sales of fresh fish — which is much more labor-intensive to prepare — on the rise in that age group? Does the can-free generation also eschew garbanzo beans and San Marzano tomatoes? Maybe it’s . . . not about cans at all?
It’s true that a can opener is not as much of a kitchen necessity as it used to be. Soups and other canned goods often have pull tabs, so you can open them with your hands. And some types of foods that were often canned now come in other types of packaging — see tubes of tomato paste and Tetra Paks of condensed milk. There’s even a new eco-friendly alternative, the cardboard Cartocan, with an easy-to-open lid. Studies have shown that millennials are less likely to cook at home, and decluttering and living a minimalist lifestyle have been major trends among young people in recent years.
But that doesn’t explain why millennials aren’t eating too much tuna. StarKist tuna has come in a pouch — hailed as “the biggest wave of innovation in tuna since StarKist pioneered canned tuna in the 1920s” — since the year 2000, when many millennials were barely in middle school. Consumers don’t even have to drain the pouch, which “contains virtually no liquid.” It’s also easy to find pull-tab tuna cans from large-scale brands such as Chicken of the Sea and specialty producers such as Genova.
And has can opener ownership actually gone down? According to market researchers at the NPD Group, “Spice products, mixing/prep bowls and nonelectric can openers were the kitchen gadgets that contributed the most dollar sales gains during the 12 months ending September 2015.” Even though those stats are a few years old and not segmented by age, they show that the can opener is not the dusty relic people presume it to be.
Here’s an alternate theory: Maybe millennials aren’t eating as much tuna because they grew up learning about how dolphins — the magical creatures of their Lisa Frank Trapper Keepers — were often killed when they became trapped in tuna nets? Or maybe it’s because they’re a health-conscious generation that worries about mercury poisoning? Or maybe it’s because it’s a generation that cares about the environment and struggles with the level of tuna overfishing? (Okay, it’s still the generation that made Ahi poke bowls mega-popular, so maybe not that one.)
Perhaps it’s just the unglamorous packaging and stodgy connotations of a can. After all, several food trend prognosticators — including The Washington Post, twice — have written about how chefs and tastemakers have sparked an interest in high-quality imported preserved seafood lately. But when they talk about it, they don’t call those sardines canned — they’re tinned.
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