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Canned fish takes a dive.

Sorry Charlie, 1983 was not a great year for the canned fish category. Although some items did well last year, sales for the entire category dove downward by 1.3%. Marketers and buyers blamed this decline on factors ranging from El Nino--the warming trend in the Pacific Ocean that played havoc with fishing patterns--to a continuing move by some items, and consumer tastes, into the fresh market.

As with any food commodity dependent upon Mother Nature, the canned fish category and the relative strengths of its products can change with the weather. But fish may be more dependent upon nature's fickleness than products like meat, fruits and vegetables over which man has some control. Imported tuna battles brands

During the past decade, the tuna industry has been besieged by a multitude of woes. Environmental concerns about the number of porpoises killed as part of the tuna catch; the rapidly rising cost of tuna boats (currently estimated at $10 million apiece); and the willingness of consumers to switch to private label or even cut back on tuna consumption when brand name prices increase have combined to bring headaches to Star-Kist's Charlie, the Chicken of the Sea mermaid and other tuna canners.

Although tuna sales in supermarkets were up 4.2% last year, an increasing percentage of those sales went to tuna canned overseas. Imported tuna accounted for close to 18% of the total canned tuna that went into market, a record percentage, according to the Marine Fisheries Service.

The primary reason for the growing number of canned tuna imports is the American consumer's newfound preference for tuna packed in water, which currently reels in more than two-thirds of all canned tuna sales. Consumers concerned about the extra calories in tuna packed in oil have been switching to water pack like fish swarming to a feeding site.

"Imported tuna packed in water is destroying the domestic industry, and it's all because of a tariff system created more than 30 years ago, when tuna packed in water was not a factor at all," says Randi Thomas, vice president of the Tuna Research Foundation, Washington. Under the U.S. tariff regulations, tuna packed in oil is subject to a 35% tariff, which keeps the prices of domestic tuna competitive. Tuna packed in water, however, is subject to a 6% tariff, rising to only 12.5% when quota levels are surpassed.

The domestic tuna industry is hoping the situation will change. Through the Tuna Research Foundation and other industry groups, manufacturers have requested an investigation to alter the tariff regulations. A final decision is due by October.

In the meantime, the brand name tunas, primarily Ralston Purina's Chicken of the Sea, Heinz' Star-Kist, and Castle & Cooke's Bumble Bee, have been trying to convince consumers that their tuna is better quality than the imports.

"Our advertising and promotional campaigns stress quality, to demonstrate that our product is consistently superior to others on the market," says Joyce Steele, manager of consumer communications for Castle & Cooke in San Francisco. "We especially push quality during our summer white sale."

The Bumble Bee campaign asks why people who desire a fillet when they eat beef and white meat from turkey would settle for anything less than Bumble Bee's albacore white tuna? Customers receive a $2 refund when they return six proof-of-purchase seals to Castle & Cooke.

Bill Green, promotion manager of Chicken of the Sea, says the company was pleased with its tuna promotions last year, including a tailgate promotion tied in with the National Football League.

Perhaps the most starting change in the tuna category last year was the zooming popularity of the reduced salt pack offered to appeal to consumers concerned with salt in their diet. Manufacturers believe the low-salt products are performing better because many supers are stocking them in line with regular tuna, not in the diet section. The low-salt products posted excellent sales in the first half of the year, falling off in the second half. A record salmon catch

The salmon industry has been rising and falling with the tides during the past few years. 1982 was by far the worst year, when the death of a woman from botulism led to a virtual shutdown of salmon canning operations in Alaska. But armed with a $3 million promotional budget from the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, salmon is starting to make a comeback. But the comeback looks like it could be more in fresh salmon and exports than in canned salmon for domestic consumption.

Marine Fishers Service says 639 million pounds of salmon were landed in 1983, 5.2% more than 1982, which itself had been a good year. The pack of canned salmon shot up to 175 million pounds, a 45.3% increase over the amount canned in 1982.

"The salmon catch last year was an alltime record high, which proves that the aquaculture program put into effect in Alaska in the '70s has been successful," says William Hudson, executive director of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute in Juneau. As recently as 1974 the salmon catch was 131 million pounds, only 20% of the tonnage reported last year.

Nonetheless, the effect on domestic sales of canned salmon has been negligible. The reason: Americans are eating more and more fresh salmon. In 1976, approximately 78% of the salmon catch went into cans, with the remainder going into the fresh and frozen market. Last year only 28% of the catch was canned, and 72% sold either fresh or frozen. Also, last year's plentiful supply caused salmon in the fresh fish department to be attractively priced, selling for as low as $2.99 per pound. People with a taste for salmon naturally bought the fresh fish.

Sardines and anchovies were harder to find on supermarket shelves last year because they were almost impossible to find in the ocean. Unusual ocean currents in the Atlantic and Pacific drove these fish away from their traditional feeding grounds, complicating the search for them.

"We had the worst sardine pack in a century in 1983," says James Warren, executive director of the Maine Sardine Council, which represents 13 canneries in the only state that produces sardines. "Some change in the ecosystem caused sardines, as well as other fish, to exhibit very peculiar behavior."

Since imports account for approximately 60% of canned sardine sales in the U.S., the disappearance of these tiny creatures off the coast of Maine did not cause havoc on supermarket shelves.

People who have a taste for anchovies had a tough time of it in 1983. According to the Marine Fisheries Service, the anchovy harvest fell 78%, to 22.3 million pounds from the previous year's total of 103.3 million pounds. El Nino, which was blamed for unusual weather throughout the year, was responsible for the disappearance of the anchovies. A big jump for shrimp

One of the stronger players in the canned fish category last year was shrimp, which jumped in sales by 15,7%. The amount of natural shrimp that went into the canning market was up 15%, to 9.1 million pounds in 1983.

"Shrimp is America's favorite seafood," says David Cook, vice president of sales for Southland Canning and Packing of New Orleans, marketers of Orleans brand products. "When there is a good catch and prices fall, people buy a lot of shrimp. It looks like 1984 will be an even better year for the domestic shrimp catch."

Despite a 6.3% drop in the quantity of crabs landed and an 8.5% slippage in the amount of crabs canned, supplies remained adequate last year. Crabmeat from Thailand and other countries compensated for the poundage lost in the domestic crab pack.

Clams were a bright spot in the supply situation of domestic seafood last year. Almost 19.2 million pounds (drained weight) of whole and minced clams were canned in 1983, 18.2% more than 1982. Howard Fischler, vice president of sales for Doxsee Foods of Baltimore, says, "We expect 1984 to be just as active. Supplies appear to be plentiful, but when you're dealing with a resource like fish in the ocean, you can never be sure."

Oyster sales tumbled by some 30% from the previous year. This decline was due to a 36.7% dropoff in the poundage of oysters that were canned, and corresponding increases in oyster's retail price. Rumors of an oyster shortage in 1984 are already surfacing.
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Publication:Progressive Grocer
Date:Jul 1, 1984
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