Sorry, Charlie, we don’t like tuna much anymore!

The information in this blog comes primarily from a longer article  by Roberto Ferdman in the Washington Post in August, 2014.

When my daughter was in school, she took tuna sandwiches for lunch almost every day. But later, when she was pregnant or nursing, she had to give it up except on very rare occasions: Her doctor told her it contained too much mercury, which was a threat to the baby. She’s a perfect illustration of a national phenomenon.

For five decades, from 1950 to 2000, canned tuna was America’s favorite seafood. It was a staple in 85 percent of American households. One of the first dishes I learned to cook in junior high cooking class (along with many American girls of the era) was tuna-noodle casserole, that all-American classic combining a half-pound of egg noodles (cooked), a can of tuna (drained and flaked) and a can of condensed cream of mushroom soup, topped with canned French-fried onions and baked till bubbly. You can be fancy and gussy it up with frozen peas, fresh mushrooms or the like, but say “tuna-noodle casserole” and just about everyone will know what you mean.

But since the 1980s, tuna has become increasingly unpopular.

A 20th century phenomenon

Tuna peaked and faded within the 20th century. Americans didn’t even know what tuna was before 1900, says Andrew Smith, author of American Tuna: The Rise and Fall of an Improbable Fish.

Americans didn’t eat much fish at all, consuming a per capita average of only seven pounds a year, compared to nearly 60 pounds of beef, more than 60 pounds of pork, and more than 15 pounds of chicken, according to US Department of Agriculture estimates. Most of what they did eat was fresh or cured, a bit of it was frozen, and most of it was salmon.

In the early 20th century, new fishing technologies enabled fishermen to catch 40-pound tunas, and canners found a way to remove the excess oil, creating a product that tasted more like chicken than like seawater. It was high in protein, low in fat – and low in price.

Annual per capita consumption of canned tuna jumped. Except for the World War II years, when nothing was available from Japanese fishermen, Americans ate more tuna every year. For those of you who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, here’s a vintage Starkist Tuna ad featuring the inimitable Charlie Tuna. …

Then, between 1999 and 2013, canned seafood sales (of which tuna is by far the leading variety) fell by 30 percent, and accounted for only 16 percent of all US fish and seafood consumption.

A variety of factors

What happened? The decline can be blamed on a variety of factors:

  • Health concerns: Tuna absorbs  methylmercury, and consuming it can have a negative affect on many aspects of health. In 1970, after testing canned tuna and finding unsafe levels of mercury, the US Food and Drug Administration recalled almost 1 million cans of the fish. The National Fisheries Institute blames misreporting of the 1970s data and points to the nutritional benefit of canned tuna. But many  groups, including the Environmental Protection Agency, recommend limiting tuna intake.
  • A concern about dolphins: Tuna fishing, which uses nets, can kill dolphins, sharks and other fish that share the same waters. In the late 1980s, consumers began boycotting tuna out of concern for dolphins. Some canners began buying from fishermen who didn’t  harm dolphins, labeling their products “dolphin safe,” and the USDA created a legal definition for that term. The US also prohibited importation of tuna from countries whose fleets killed more dolphins than US fishermen did. The “dolphin safe” label does not entirely satisfy many American consumers, who remain leery about buying tuna because of the danger of tuna fishing to dolphins.

  • Expense: Tuna isn’t as cheap as it once was, partly due to a declining supply. Canned tuna is now more expensive than canned salmon. If the price of the tuna brand you buy has not gone up in the past few years, you can bet the size of the can has decreased.
  • A preference for fresh food: Americans are less interested in canned foods of all kinds, and instead prefer fresh.
  • A distrust of imported food: Many people don’t trust animal products produced in Asia or South America. Starkist, Bumble Bee and Chicken of the Sea control nearly three-quarters of the US canned tuna market, but all three are foreign-owned.

Market monitors expect canned seafood sales volumes to dip by an additional 3 percent by 2018.

Me, I still love a nice tuna salad made with celery, scallion and mayo with lettuce and tomato on multigrain bread. The tuna salad recipe below includes macaroni, so it’s not for sandwiches. It’s a great picnic dish, but also good for potlucks and school or office lunches.