Why are we suddenly talking about canned tuna and millennials?
The Wall Street Journal reported on Sunday that overall consumption of the packaged fish has declined by more than 40 percent in the United States over the last three decades, according to the Department of Agriculture.
Among the reasons that people are less inclined to reach for a can of Bumble Bee: It isn’t convenient enough for younger consumers. Many people “can’t be bothered to open and drain the cans, or fetch utensils and dishes to eat the tuna,” The Journal reported.
But the rationale that cut hardest, it seems, was a quotation from a vice president for marketing and innovation for StarKist, one of the big three tuna purveyors.
“A lot of millennials don’t even own can openers,” he said.
This explanation did not smell right to many on Twitter.
Images of mangled dolphins in nets led to a countrywide boycott in the late 1980s, spearheaded by “youths,” according to The New York Times.
Tuna disappeared from lunch menus, movies and comic strips after schoolchildren and others staged letter-writing campaigns.
Joseph R. Biden Jr., then a senator from Delaware, introduced a bill requiring tuna labels to show whether dolphins were killed after his 8-year-old daughter badgered him about the slaughter.
More recently, the decline in interest among consumers aged 18 to 34 can be attributed to a preference for frozen or fresh fish, according to a report by Mintel, a market-research firm cited in the Journal article.
That explanation did not hold water for some, either:
“So we’re too lazy to open a can of tuna, but when it comes to breaking out the sauté pan and busting open the spice drawer motivation abounds,” @mcJakeSportz wrote on Twitter.
Established tuna brands like Bumble Bee, StarKist and Chicken of the Sea, which control most of the market, are facing increased competition from smaller brands that are offering twice-cooked tuna and tuna caught with more sustainable practices, The Journal said.
In order to cater to utensil-challenged consumers, Big Tuna brands are introducing new types of packaging, like easy-open pouches, kits that include crackers and a fork, as well as resealable packages designed to fit into car cupholders.
StarKist is hoping to lure in consumers with spicy flavors like hot buffalo and sriracha. It barely tastes like fish anymore.
You may even see tuna in the impulse-buy aisle near the checkout.
While consumers may be rebelling against the edibility of tuna, cost may also be a factor.
Since 2015, Big Tuna has been on the hook with federal investigators for engaging in a broad conspiracy to rig prices of canned tuna. In October, StarKist acknowledged wrongdoing and pleaded guilty to a felony charge for its role in forcing shoppers to pay inflated prices.
“The conspiracy to fix prices on these household staples had direct effects on the pocketbooks of American consumers,” said a lawyer from the Justice Department’s antitrust division.
Are millennials really to blame for Big Tuna’s woes?
An informal survey conducted by editors and writers at New York Magazine’s “The Cut” on Monday revealed a more complex answer.
“Based on my very limited investigation,” wrote Anna Silman, “my peers are just as diverse and multifaceted in their tuna consumption habits as their fellow tuna-eaters throughout history. While most everyone owns a can opener, not everyone likes tuna, while others prefer a bag or even a jar.”
The seas may part for tuna lovers squabbling over oil- or water-packed products. But for others, tuna is a nonstarter. Slate’s chief political correspondent, Jamelle Bouie, a millennial, summarized his feelings.