Canned Tuna, Bolstered by Pandemic, Appears to Have ‘Staying Power’

Prior to the pandemic, canned tuna was fading as a staple of the American pantry, with younger generations seeking out fresher, less-processed food options.

In fact, per capita consumption of canned tuna dropped 42% in the three decades through 2016, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

The world’s largest producers were looking to reverse lower sales and shed perceptions that canned tuna was outdated, pungent, high in mercury and environmentally unfriendly.

Then, of course, COVID hit. And sales of the 20th-century staple skyrocketed with consumers aligning with its inexpensive cost, high shelf life, and nutritional value.

In an e-mailed statement to The Food Institute, Bumble Bee said the category overall grew in the high teens during the pandemic and household penetration peaked at 55%, the highest level the company has seen in over a decade.

“Tuna continues to have staying power with the American consumer as a healthy protein and a quick, convenient meal or snack,” Andy Mecs, executive vice president of commercial at Thai Union Group’s Chicken of the Sea International unit, told The Food Institute in an e-mail. “While sales have dipped in comparison to the COVID stock-up period, the category sales are up +1.8% year to date vs. the same time frame in 2019. Some consumers are still de-loading their pantries, but others continue to buy at a brisk pace. The dollars per buyer (aka buying rate) for the latest 13 weeks are up +1.4% and the current dollars per trip (aka Purchase Size) are up +3.2%.”

A brief history and market overview

Tuna first made inroads into American cupboards following a sardine shortage in 1903 and grew in popularity during wartime protein shortages that followed and as new canning technologies took hold. Since the late 1980s, its reputation has changed, as consumers worried about potential mercury poisoning, the harm done to dolphins and its likeness to cat food. (Wall Street Journal, 2018).

About 300 million pounds of canned tuna is imported into the U.S. from other countries each year. Major suppliers to the U.S include Thailand, Philippines, Ecuador, Vietnam and Indonesia.

The top three vendors (Dongwon, Bumble Bee Foods and Thai Union Group) occupy about 54% market share, based on sales value.

Market outlook

Globally, the canned tuna market was valued at $8.2 billion in 2019 and is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 4.7% through 2027, according to Grandview Research.

But with some Millennials not even sure what a can opener is, the industry has recognized that product innovation is key, developing new products and offering premium brands that are marketed as sustainable.

Bumble Bee’s new Protein on the Run product, for example, is designed for on-the-go, high-protein meals and snacking. The company is also launching a new line of Quick Catch Tuna Bowls which blend tuna, rice or pasta, and vegetables for a convenient mini-meal that can be eaten hot or cold.

“It is interesting to note that consumers have adopted other shelf stable seafood options as well during COVID,” said Chicken of the Sea’s Mecs. “Skinless boneless salmon and sardines particularly resonate with the younger demographics, including millennials. Chicken of the Sea’s salmon sales are +25.2% year to date vs. 2019 and our sardines sales are up +24.0%.”