Food history: canned tuna

In lieu of a fresh food wave in our country, canned food items such as soups or tuna fish have dropped some in sales.

But, canned tuna has been so popular for so long that even with this dip, it’s still holding fairly strong – for now.

Let’s check out the history of canned tuna.

row of six dead tuna fish

Before there was canned tuna there were canned sardines. The sardine business was doing well during the late 1800s and early 1900s, and the trade expanded from the East Coast to the West Coast. At the time, tuna was considered a “trash fish.”

In 1903, as the sardine business grew, the availability of sardines decreased. Fishermen began to look towards other breeds of fish for canning. Among the new fish being experimented with was the albacore tuna. The first canned tuna came out in 1904.

California canner Albert P. Halfhil, previously a sardine man, was the one who realized that when tuna is steamed it turns an appealing white color and has a pleasantly mild flavor. Perhaps even back then Americans generally preferred fish that’s not too “fishy.” 

Seven hundred cases of tuna were sold that first year, and by 1914 production increased to 400,000 cases. Early advertisements for tuna claimed that it “tasted like chicken,” instead of something from the ocean.

Canned tuna was praised for being high in protein and low in fat. Of course, it can stay on the shelf for awhile as well, being canned, which earned bonus points for its convenience factor. In addition, it had a low price tag and came with recipes for casseroles and more. Canned tuna sales boomed throughout the 1920s.

By the 1930s, the coast off California was depleted of its albacore tuna, so fishermen had go out several hundred miles offshore, and to coastal areas south, to Mexico and beyond. Other tuna folks, such as the Van Camp Seafood Company, decided to go after yellowfin tuna instead of albacore. They marketed it as “Fancy Light Meat Tuna.”

During World War II tuna boats were used by the Navy to deliver supplies, and consequently fish catching reduced; many fishermen were drafted into the war, too. Despite this, though, tuna sales still remained up. Canned tuna was able to be shipped overseas to soldiers as a high protein food source.

By 1954 the US was the world’s largest producer and consumer of canned tuna. Andrew Smith, author of American Tuna: The Rise and Fall of an Improbable Fish, was quoted by the Washington Post as saying he believed 99% of tuna consumed in America prior to 1970 was canned.

Tuna remained the most popular seafood in America for decades to come. But, some bad news started to surface during the 1970s, with public knowledge of the issues spreading during the 1980s.

The canned tuna industry’s trouble was a two-fold combination: health concerns, and dolphin bycatch.

Tuna takes in a considerable amount of methylmercury, a type of mercury. Methylmecury can be responsible for devastating health effects, such as loss of memory, loss of speech, hair loss, etc.

In 1970, a chemistry professor took it upon himself to test cans of tuna and found the mercury levels to be unsafe. The USDA subsequently ran their own tests and agreed with his conclusion, recalling nearly 1 million cans of tuna.

The other problem consumers found with tuna is that catching tuna can harm other sea life, primarily dolphins, but also sharks. Yellowfin tuna and dolphins in particular seem to hang out together for some reason. When fishermen release their nets, apparently they kill the dolphins in the process.

In the 1990s, the government and the USDA promoted “dolphin-friendly” tuna. But, many people still wonder if that indicates 100% that no dolphins were harmed whatsoever.

That same year, 1990, the International Trade Commission estimated that Americans eat a third of the global supply of tuna.

Ever since then, the number has decreased. Between 1999 and just about present times not just tuna, but canned seafood sales in general, has fallen by almost 30%.

In 2000, manufacturers started introducing tuna “pouches” to get away from the negative image associated these days with canned food – this did go fairly well, in addition to marinated tuna becoming available, but not well enough to bring back sales to what they were.

The other thing about tuna is that it isn’t cheap anymore. In 2013 canned tuna prices reached a record high.

I know I’m being a bit conflicting here, but again, despite high prices, dolphin-killing, and mercury scares, canned tuna is actually retaining a solid presence in American pantries. 

Tuna is the second most consumed seafood in the US behind shrimp, with 751 million pounds of canned tuna eaten in 2012 alone. The high prices are helping to make up for less people buying tuna, too.

Flipping back to the negative side again, there have been very recent recalls  – for reasons other than mercury alone, such as metal pieces in the cans. There have even lawsuits regarding tuna.

It will inevitably be interesting to see where America’s tuna trend goes. My guess is consumption will continue to decrease over the years but very, very slowly.

Two side notes:

Although I always derive information for my posts from as many sources as possible, I ended up with the most relevant information for this piece from a well-written 2014 Washington Post article here, “How America Fell Out of Love with Canned Tuna” by Roberto A. Ferdman. Thank you, Roberto.

And, I just wanted to mention that I myself do eat canned tuna fish, often. I buy the the Bumble Bee Tuna brand. Whenever I’m out of cold cuts or other good bringing-lunch-to-work foods I always go for the tuna.

3 thoughts on “Food history: canned tuna

  1. What was tuna first packed in, oil or water? If oil, then when did the oil packing start? If water, then when did the oil packing start. Some people say it was packed in its own oil. Just an interesting thing to argue about? Ha ha.

      1. Hi Susan – the most definitive thing I could find on which was first is here:

        Which says originally tuna was canned in oil. This would make sense to me, because some tuna manufacturers believe water can dilute the flavor of the tuna while the oil can help keep it in. I’d be willing to bet tuna canned in water didn’t come until later, when people started having concerns about the fat in the oil.

        Great question – hope that helps! If anyone else has something more definitive, jump in.

Comments are closed.