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How America fell out of love with canned tuna

Swimming against the stream. (Fliker user sonson)

Long a staple of the American diet, canned tuna has fallen on hard times.

Last year, canned seafood sales, of which tuna is far and away the leading variety, fell to their lowest level in more than 15 years, according to market research firm Euromonitor. Meanwhile, per capita canned tuna consumption tumbled by nearly 30 percent over the same period, according to data from the USDA.

The fall of America's appetite for canned tuna is the story of Americans' changing diets and relationship to food. For nearly nine decades, Americans ate more and more tuna out of tin cans. For nearly five decades — from about 1950 until 2000 — tuna, almost all of which was canned, was the most popular seafood in the United States. At the peak of the country's love for canned tuna fish, more than 85 percent of American households kept the beloved salad and sandwich add-on in cupboards across the nation, according to Roger Corey's 1990 report "Tuna: competitive conditions affecting the U.S. and European tuna industries in domestic and foreign markets."

But health and sustainability concerns — which range from fears of mercury poisoning to fury over dolphin bycatch — have taken their toll. So too has a national shift away from canned foods, which has forced other industries, including the canned soup business, to experiment with newer, friendlier and fresher-seeming forms of packaging. The rising price of tuna fish has also stripped canned tuna of one of its largest appeals. And America's growing interest in fresh, local and organic foods has alienated non-perishables, like packaged, precooked tuna fish.

That avalanche of opposing forces appears to have proven too much.

"Americans have fallen out of love with canned tuna," said Virginia Lee, a senior industry analyst at Euromonitor.

The time before tuna

Americans didn't always eat tuna. At the turn of the 20th century, they didn't even really know what it tasted like.

"Nobody ate tuna before 1900," Andrew Smith, author of "American Tuna: The Rise and Fall of an Improbable Fish," said in an interview. "It was considered a trash fish. As you can imagine, there wasn't any canned tuna at all in America until about 1904, and even then there wasn't much."

At the time, Americans didn't even really like fish. The average American consumed fewer than seven pounds of fresh, frozen and canned fish in 1910, but nearly 60 pounds of beef, more than 60 pounds of pork, and more than 15 pounds of chicken, according to USDA estimates. What fish they did eat was predominantly fresh, frozen and cured, and almost always salmon.

But the advent of new fishing technology, which allowed for local fisherman to more efficiently catch 40-pound tuna, and the discovery of a new means of removing excess oil found in the otherwise pungent fish, helped the tuna industry change the course of the American diet. Suddenly canners were able to package a product that tasted more like chicken and less like sea water, and sell as much of it as the country cared to eat — or at least significantly more of it than they had once thought possible.

It was precisely canned tuna's blandness that the industry latched on to. Early advertisements touted that canned tuna tasted like chicken long before international tuna canner Chicken of the Sea decided to turn the likeness into its name. The tuna industry also touted the fish's many health benefits — specifically the fact that it was high in protein and low in fat — pointed to its low price point, and shared recipes for casseroles, salads and sandwiches on labels and flyers.

The rise of tuna

Canned tuna fish was a hit. Per capita consumption jumped from just about zero in 1905 to nearly half a pound per year by the end of the 1920s. By 1930, demand had risen so quickly that U.S. West Coast tuna supplies couldn't keep up. "All commercially available tuna was fished out of California," Smith said. "Fisherman had to go to the coast of Mexico, Central America and South America, instead."

By 1950, tuna had overtaken salmon as America's most popular fish. 

"All of that was canned," Smith said. "My suspicions are that about 99 percent of tuna consumed in America before 1970 was canned."

Save for a brief fallout during World War II, when Japanese fishermen, who controlled much of the tuna fishing market, were marginalized, and tuna production tanked, Americans bought more canned tuna nearly every year for almost 90 years running.

In 1989, at the height of the country's unparalleled love for canned tuna, the average American ate almost four pounds of the fish each year. In 1990, the International Trade commission estimated that Americans were responsible for eating about a third of the global supply of tuna, and between half and two-thirds of the global supply of canned tuna.

But ever since, the narrative has been flipped on its head. Since 1989, per capita canned tuna consumption has almost halved. Since 1999, canned seafood sales have fallen by nearly 30 percent. In 2012, canned tuna was responsible for just over 16 percent of all U.S. fish and seafood consumption in the country, the lowest reading in nearly 60 years.

Tuna might be toxic

The single biggest reason for tuna's demise is a major health concern that surfaced in the 1970s, spread in the 1980s, and has persisted ever since.

Tuna absorbs considerable amounts of methylmercury, a type of mercury that lodges itself in the fatty tissues of big fish, and consuming methylmercury can negatively affect everything from memory to speech, reflexes, hair loss and even heart health. In 1970, after a New York chemistry professor tested a can of tuna and found unsafe levels of mercury, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ran its own tests and found exactly the same. That year, the government agency recalled almost 1 million cans of tuna.

Thereafter, the FDA did little more than tweak the suggested level of mercury. "After its initial burst of activity in the 1970s, the FDA seemed to lose interest in tuna," Stephanie Mencimer wrote in Mother Jones in 2008. "In the 1990s, it [the FDA] even stopped its occasional tests of store-bought fish."

And there are many who still question whether mercury levels observed in tuna are indeed toxic. Myriad groups have warned about the harms of overconsuming tuna fish, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which even today recommends limiting intake, and opting for certain kinds of tuna over others.

But the National Fisheries Institute, which represents seafood companies and restaurants, takes issue with the perception that tuna is unsafe to eat. Lynsee Fowler, a spokeswoman for the institute, said the "misreporting of the 1970s" has been "replaced with reams of independent, published, peer-reviewed science that illustrates the clear nutrition and public health benefit seafood, and canned tuna in particular, offer. In fact up to date science points clearly to a health danger associated with not eating fish."

It also might kill dolphins

A lesser-known but no less jarring issue with the tuna industry is that fishing for tuna can hurt other sea life, including dolphins and sharks.

Dolphins in particular have proven to be a significant bycatch in tuna fishing. The problem is most pronounced among yellowfin tuna fishers, according to Smith. "Yellowfin tuna and dolphins, for reasons yet unclear, tend to share water-space. The easiest way to catch tuna is by simply looking for dolphins on the surface of the water," Smith said. "But when tuna fisherman release their nets, they kill dolphins in the process."

In the late 1980s, many consumers responded by boycotting the industry. In 1990, tuna canners began buying fish from fisherman who didn't catch their tuna at the expense of dolphins, and then labeling it "dolphin-safe." The U.S. government soon involved itself in regulating the labels. "To prevent fraud, the government created a legal definition of dolphin-safe," the USDA said in a report. "Also, the government imposed an import ban on tuna from countries whose fishing fleets killed more dolphins than U.S. fisherman did."

But even today, and even with dolphin-safe labels, the potential for bycatch persists. Many doubt whether dolphin-safe labels even guarantee that no dolphins were harmed in the process. And the American consumer, if not completely put off by the potential for that reality, is at the very least a little inhibited about buying tuna.

It's not as cheap as it once was

It doesn't help that tuna has gotten more expensive over the years, either.

One of the most compelling marketing initiatives launched early on by the tuna industry was the fish's relatively affordable price. "They advertised the low cost of tuna compared to salmon, tuna's number one competitor," Smith said. "But the price of tuna has gone up. If you look at cans, they sell for the same amount but with less tuna by weight."

The combination of falling local tuna supplies, which has forced the U.S. to import more and more of its tuna, and rising demand abroad, which has strained the global supply, has pushed domestic prices upwards. Just last year, tuna prices hit record highs. Tuna is now considerably more expensive than salmon, and has been for years.

And it isn't 'fresh'

America's preeminence as a nation of increasingly picky eaters has also done canned tuna no good.

The kinds of storable foods found in metal containers on supermarket shelves have lost their appeal amid a national shift toward freshness. "This is true for most canned foods, because Americans view canned foods as being unhealthy, high in sodium, poor tasting and highly processed," Lee said.

"The high sodium content and processed feel of canned foods does not coincide with the American vision of healthy eating, and the lower price point of canned foods, which gave Americans the affordability they needed during the recession, has also given the products an association with poor quality," a 2014 report by Euromonitor said.

A similar fallout has pinched soup sales. “You listen to us talk for years about revitalizing the canned soup business that has long been the heart of our enterprise in North America, and you think we're in denial,” Campbell's CEO Denise Morrison told investors in an analyst call in late 2012. "The problem is not necessarily soup’s fault, but its packaging, the metal food can," Daniel Grimsey, an industry analyst at Euromonitor, wrote this year.

It has also hurt microwave sales, which are similarly in contradiction with the American idea of "freshness," and even sales of orange juice, which has come under fire of late for its complicated production process.

Americans aren't merely demanding better, fresher ingredients when out for a meal — they're doing the same when cooking at home. Look no further than the first lady, Michelle Obama, who has been encouraging the nation to eat more fresh food for years.

So what does the future hold for canned tuna?

Canned tuna might become less of a staple — and more of an indulgence.

While America won't live without canned tuna again — even this year, the country is expected to purchase several hundred million pounds of the packaged fish — it will almost certainly live with less of it. "This trend is only likely to continue," Lee said.

By Euromonitor's estimates, canned seafood sales by volume are slated to dip by an additional 3 percent by 2018.

The good news for tuna canners, however, is that the canned tuna U.S. consumers are buying these days is pricey enough to compensate for the the country's shrinking appetite. The fall-out in purchases of actual pounds of canned seafood hasn't been commensurate with the change in dollar sales, which have actually been growing at a modest clip — and are expected to continue to grow through at least 2018.

Whether Americans will continue to fork over a little extra for canned tuna remains to be seen. The industry's one saving grace in the U.S. might be the country's public school-lunch programs, which, if it chooses to adopt the canned fish, can effectively ensure that it remains a key source of protein for America's youth.

That battle, however, is ongoing, and its outcome is still unclear. In recent years, the U.S. Agriculture Department has sent fewer and fewer dollars in the tuna industry's direction (about zero over the past two year), citing sanitary issues, labor practices and the fact that much of America's tuna isn't all that American. Starkist, Bumble Bee Co. and Chicken of the Sea control nearly three-quarters of the U.S. canned tuna market, according to market research firm IRI — 36 percent, 25 percent and 13 percent, respectively. And yet all three are foreign-owned.

"Tuna just isn't that American anymore," Smith said.

UPDATE: This post has been updated to include a comment from the National Fisheries Institute.