Sales of frozen fish entrees at Crossroads County Market, Wausau, Wis., were lackluster until associates moved the product from unprepared seafood and placed it alongside the rest of the frozen dinners a few months ago. Since then, shoppers have started biting.
"When people are looking for dinners, they might not think of fish," explained Douglas Hinkens, dairy and frozen food manager at the single-store independent. "By putting it into that category, they'll see it."
Buoyed by government statements that say fish is good for you, retailers and manufacturers are hoping new frozen and shelf-stable products will get shoppers who are bored by tired selections and intimidated by uncooked seafood to look anew at frozen and shelf-stable selections.
The industry also has been battling negative publicity lately. Sales in the $1 billion-plus canned tuna category dropped last year after the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency issued a methylmercury advisory that recommended that pregnant women and young children eat no more than 12 ounces of canned tuna and no more than 6 ounces of albacore tuna per week. In the year that ended July 16, sales in food, drug and mass channels (excluding Wal-Mart Stores) were down 3.4%, according to ACNielsen.
Twenty-one percent of adults polled by the NPD Group in early August said they're "extremely/very concerned about mercury in fish/seafood," vs. 18% a year earlier.
The government also recently approved a qualified health claim for omega-3 fatty acids and included in its new dietary guidelines a recommendation that people include fish in their diets. It's uncertain how much the seafood industry will be able to capitalize on those statements, though.
At Lund Food Holdings in Edina, Minn., shoppers seem more worried about fish's downsides. While omega-3 supplements are selling well, concerns about pollution and additives in farm-raised and mercury in ocean-raised fish are dampening sales of canned and fresh fish alike, said Bea James, the chain's nutritionist.
"People are surprisingly educated, and we're seeing some lift in fish sales, but we're not seeing the kind of lift we expected to see because of consumers having this kind of knowledge," she said. Lund sampled salmon raised on ocean farms from what it considered to be a reputable company. But because it was farm-raised, she said, "We couldn't even get customers to taste it."
Omega-3 statements are starting to show up on product packaging, but because of restrictions on the omega-3-related health claims manufacturers can make, such food-labeling activity has been limited. Still, the seafood industry is staking its future on seafood's health attributes.
In 2004, the U.S. Tuna Foundation tested a television and radio campaign, "Tuna: A Smart Catch," that promoted tuna's health advantages, which the foundation argues far outweigh any mercury-related risks. It hopes to spend $18 million to $22 million to further the message in a campaign it would launch in spring 2006.
"It will remind people that it's generally a healthful food," said Carol Whitman, account director at Marriner Marketing Communications, Columbia, Md., which is handling the campaign. "It's a high-quality, low-fat protein, zero carbs and less fat than chicken, and it also has omega-3s."
Manufacturers, for their part, have been introducing new products that are positioned as premium, convenient and good for you.
In the shelf-stable aisle, shoppers can now get their tuna in premium versions, marinated in flavorings like lemon and hickory smoke, and packaged in pouches that don't need a can opener. Chicken of the Sea International -- one of the three biggest tuna companies, along with Bumble Bee and StarKist -- in 2004 launched a line of pouched shellfish products, including crab, shrimp and oysters, and had high hopes for a new smoked salmon in a pouch. It's introduced frozen shrimp after having bought Empress Frozen Seafood. "We're looking at expanding the Chicken of the Sea brand into a lot of different categories," said John Signorino, president and chief executive.
Bumble Bee, meanwhile, rolled out pouched, ready-to-eat albacore steaks nationwide this year, hoping to get consumers to think of tuna beyond the noon meal. They're touted as a low-calorie, convenient entree that's a good source of protein and omega-3 fatty acids. John Stiker, executive vice president of corporate development, said that while pouched products are cannibalizing canned to some extent, Bumble Bee is getting additional eating occasions out of the steaks.
Such new products may help offset canned tuna's decline, but there may be a cost: Stiker said the category as a whole is losing facings and distribution of slowest-moving items because pouches take up more space on the shelf.
Products in the frozen aisle, traditionally defined by fillets and fishsticks, also have been adopting an upscale, healthful and convenient image.
Gorton's is promoting new grilled fillet meals as meal solutions that are low in calories and trans fats, and shrimp bowls as quick, indulgent meals that are trans fat-free. Pinnacle Foods Corp., maker of Mrs. Paul's and Van de Kamp's, has been focusing on lighter breadings, new species and convenience.
Seafood companies also have been taking bold marketing steps to enliven their products' tired image.
Pinnacle Foods last fall ran a campaign that acknowledged people's unfamiliarity with preparing fish. In a TV ad, an oversized fish shocked onlookers by popping up "out of water" in playgrounds and on a racquetball court. The tagline: "Get Comfortable With Fish."
Not ready to abandon plain old tuna, Chicken of the Sea took a rare step in airing a national TV ad campaign in August, with plans to ramp it up this month. The commercial, which the company said was inspired by Jessica Simpson's remark ("Is it chicken or is it tuna?"), taps into consumers' weight-control issues while promoting tuna as a food that's low-fat and high in omega-3.
In the ad, a leggy supermodel has all male eyes on her as she struts toward the office elevator. Once alone behind the closed doors, though, the supposedly flat-tummied woman lets it all "hang out."
The new-product and promotional efforts may be helping. Frozen seafood entrees netted $221.6 million in sales in the year ended July 16, an increase of 17.9%. Pouched products made a big splash at first, but their sales growth has slowed, and their share remains tiny: Pouched tuna sales accounted for just $126.2 million in the year ended July 16.
Jim Mirabito, owner of IGA Village Market in Hannibal, N.Y., said he believes a wider variety of fish, and better-looking and easy-to-open packages with recipes on the back have aided sales in the shelf-stable and frozen seafood categories, where he's made room for new products by scaling back on less-exciting canned tuna and frozen items.
Mirabito said pouched tuna sales recently picked up, a shift he attributed to their ease of use and interest in healthy living. "In the last four months, we've seen a tremendous increase in sales," he said. On the frozen side, he's selling more prepared fish such as salmon and cod.
Mercury worries aren't tuna's only challenge. Many consumers continue to eat it, even if they do so in moderation.
Shoppers at Hunger Mountain Co-Op, a single-unit natural and organic store in Montpelier, Vt., haven't stopped buying tuna since the store hung an 8-by-10-inch shelf sign a year ago warning about the mercury content in fish, said Michael Noone, a manager with responsibility for seafood. Noone said his educated and health-conscious customers have long known about mercury. "I just think they like tuna fish. They're used to it," he said.
Other seafood is growing faster in popularity, though. Canned tuna had been Americans' favorite seafood for decades until 2001, when it was surpassed by shrimp, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. Consumption of fillets and steaks also are up. In 2003, the latest year for which figures are available, Americans ate 3.4 pounds of canned tuna, 4 pounds of shrimp and 4.3 pounds of fillets and steaks.
Signorino said that with its health benefits, seafood has great growth potential, especially specialty seafood and salmon. Still, retailers have done little to merchandise the category creatively, and people still need to get used to preparing seafood. "We're not a seafood-eating country; we're intimidated by seafood," said Signorino, who sees the future in microwavable products. Manufacturers are addressing the issue through recipes on pouched and frozen products and company Web sites. The tuna industry campaign will remind consumers of tuna's simplicity, Bumble Bee's Stiker said. Take his company's pre-cooked, pouched steaks, he said. "Those are just about as easy as it gets."