Soup-To-Nuts Podcast: What does it take to drive up seafood consumption in the US?

By Elizabeth Crawford contact

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Fatty acid, Omega-3 fatty acid

Seafood checks many of today’s on-trend boxes, including being high in lean protein and omega-3 fatty acids, sustainable, natural and minimally processed – yet consumption of it in the US continues to fall, prompting manufacturers and public health advocates to become more creative in how they market and package fish.

In America, seafood consumption is at an all-time low, with people eating an average of only 14.6 pounds per year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s most recent report released in late 2015. This is down from a record high of 16.6 pounds per year per person in 2004, and is nowhere near the 26 to 39 pounds of seafood that FDA now recommends Americans eat annually.

To find out more about why Americans aren’t eating as much seafood as recommended and why they should, in this episode of Soup-To-Nuts FoodNavigator-USA catches up with David Melbourne, senior vice president of consumer marketing and corporate social responsibility at Bumble Bee Seafoods, and registered dietitians Willow Jarosh and Stephanie Clarke.

Why seafood consumption is falling

Even though seafood meets many of today’s top trends, it has significant challenges that it needs to overcome before Americans can fully embrace it – the most significant of which is a perception that it is not convenient or portable, Melbourne said.

He explained that most consumers are turned off by needing special equipment to open a can of tuna or salmon and then needing to mix it with other ingredients before they can eat it. But, he added, Bumble Bee is aggressively working to address this concern with a variety of new product launches including tuna products in a pouch, which eliminates the need for a can opener, and a line of ready-to-eat Snack-on-the-Run Lunch Kits that combine a variety of different flavored tuna salads with crackers in small packages that easily tuck into gym bags, lunch boxes and purses.

Another reason that seafood consumption in the US is declining is because many people do not know how to prepare fresh or frozen seafood and are fearful that they will ruin it during their preparation, Melbourne said.

Again, Bumble Bee is trying to remove this barrier by working with chefs and nutritionists to develop “delicious, convenient recipes that really take the scary-factor out of the whole equation in terms of how I am going to prepare this for myself and my family,”​ he said. Plus, he added, the company offers many affordable meal solutions that cut down on the cooking requirements.

In addition, Melbourne noted, that as consumers have drifted away from seafood the shift becomes self-perpetuating because it is no longer in the front of their minds as an option – which Bumble Bee hopes to change through increased marketing and advertising activities.

Confusing government advice causes long-term negative impact on consumption

Perhaps the biggest hurdle manufacturers and health advocates promoting seafood consumption need to overcome is the long-term impact of a damaging 2004 advisory from FDA that said Americans should eat up to 12 ounces of fish that is lower in mercury per week – but which didn’t recommend a minimum amount to eat.

The advisory, which specifically addressed pregnant women and young children, “was phrased in a way that came across to many people as a message to be careful and don’t eat too much seafood,”​ explained Clarke. As a result, many well-meaning pregnant women actively avoided seafood altogether and in doing so missed out many of the health benefits that it offers.

She explained that seafood is packed with nutrients and vitamins that pregnant and nursing mothers need, including B vitamins, iron, vitamin D and specific types of omega-3 fatty acid that is essential for babies’ brain and eye development and good for mothers’ heart health.

To help amend this unintended consequence, the FDA issued new guidance in 2014 that adopted a less ominous tone than the 2004 advisory and clarified that Americans should consume 8- to 12-ounces of seafood low in mercury per week, Jarosh added, noting that a recommended minimum really changed consumers’ view on how much to eat.

She also noted that consuming 8 to 12 ounces per week isn’t as challenging as it sounds when it is broken down into two or three meals over the course of seven days.

Increased transparency could boost consumption

Another major trend in the food space right now is a growing desire among consumers to know more about what they are putting in their body, where it came from and how it was produced – a call to action that if answered by industry could help boost seafood consumption, Melbourne said.

“Over the last couple of years, we have seen this move … where consumers are really starting to question what’s in their food, where does their food come from [and] this notion of wanting foods that don’t contain lots of different types of ingredients that you can’t even pronounce,”​ he said.

Given that most consumers recognize seafood as simple, clean nutrition, the industry really only needs to tackle the first part of this equation – explaining where the fish comes from – to fully benefit from these trends, he added.

To that end, Bumble Bee last fall developed a website that will help consumers “trace your catch,”​ by following the fish from catch to can, Melbourne said.

He explained consumers can now enter the product code for a can or pouch of tuna, salmon or sardines and they will learn easy-to-understand facts about the fish, how it was caught and by whom – including details about the specific vessels and when they left and re-entered port, he explained.

In addition, the website features video footage that brings consumers inside of Bumble Bee’s factories to show the processing.

“We're really trying to take the mystery out of all of this. We’re trying to help educate consumers, and a whole variety of stakeholders to be honest, about what's involved and traceability … and just giving them again very simple, very easy to understand commentary that they can wrap their head around and understand where their food is coming from,”​ Melbourne said.

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