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Add it to the list of victims

Tim Nelson
December 03, 2018

Last week, I ate half of a relatively unimpressive tuna sandwich. As I did so, the only thought I really had about the experience was “Huh, I haven’t eaten tuna fish in a really long time.”

As it turns out, I’m not alone. Consumption of the canned fish has fallen precipitously over the years, falling roughly 42 percent between 1986 and 2016 according to USDA data cited by the Wall Street Journal. Traditional tuna makers have had to adapt their offerings, fighting against both consumer malaise and competition from upstart brands trying to do things differently. It’s been enough to affect the tuna market as a whole, with market research firm IRI showing that overall sales of the fish fell by 4 percent from 2013 through October 2018.

So what’s going on? It’s partially a case of younger consumers opting for fresh or frozen alternatives when it comes to buying tuna. Trying to get processed tuna out of a container that makes your meal look like cat food just doesn’t seem worth the effort to many. “A lot of millennials don’t even own can openers,” VP of marketing and innovation for Starkist Andy Mecs told the Journal.

In an industry that’s started to get stale, upstart brands have found ways to give tuna a refresh. Wild Planet, which cooks tuna inside the can so it can marinate in its natural oils and juices, is doing $100 million in sales at Supermarkets across the country. Safe Catch, which touts its low mercury content, is another sustainability-minded brand stealing market share from the major players. According to Nielsen, these small brands (excluding in-store options) now make up 6.3 percent of total tuna sales, up from 3.7 percent back in 2014.

For their part, industry veterans like Bumble Bee and Starkist are attempting to stay relevant for younger consumers through innovation. They’ve each launched their own high-end tuna brands that boast of higher sustainability standards. Starkist has struck a partnerships with Home Chef to get their tuna in meal kits, and Bumble Bee says it has a “next generation pouch” ready for launch in summer 2019.

But will it all be enough to turn the tide back in big tuna’s favor? Given our ongoing disdain for canned and processed foods when fresher options are available, it’s hard to say for sure. But don’t be shocked if the generation that’s killed everything from mayonnaise to homeownership claims tuna as its next victim.  

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