The story is a lot bigger—and weirder—than a simple change in consumer tastes.
This story is about the canned tuna business and the three big companies that dominate it. It’s a story about price fixing, and it’s a saga so dark and disruptive those companies are still reeling from it, facing bankruptcy, legal action, even prison time. It’s a story that upended a century-old industry—but if you ask Cliff White, executive editor of the news website SeafoodSource, he’ll tell you there’s way more at stake than just business: “Price fixing is absolutely wrong, especially for a product that people depend on. That’s the difference between them eating dinner and not eating dinner. That’s canned tuna. We’re not talking about bluefin toro that’s served at Nobu.”
Tuna has been eaten all over the world for thousands of years. In the United States, it was at one time a food mostly associated with immigrant communities—Japanese Americans who fished it in the waters off California, or Italian Americans who’d grown up eating bluefin from the Mediterranean. What turned it into a universal staple was a new technology: canning.
Anna Zeide, founding director of the food studies program at Virginia Tech, explains: “Right around the turn of the 20th century is where you start to see a really focused effort on the part of early tuna canners to build an industry. Canned tuna has this really meteoric rise from being a very marginal food that very few people ate in the early 20th century to being an embodiment of canned food and American processed food by the 1950s and ’60s.”
There were once dozens of independent tuna canners, but by the 1960s the industry had consolidated, with just three companies combining for 80 percent of market share. StarKist, the No. 1 brand in the category for many years running, was founded in 1917 by a Croatian immigrant in California. Chicken of the Sea, known as the discount brand with cheaper prices, was founded in 1914, also in California. Bumble Bee started as an association of canners in Oregon back in the 1890s.
Tuna’s big three brands thrived in the 1960s and into the early ’70s, but then the tide turned. The 1970s saw consumers increasingly worried about the tuna they were eating. They worried about how much mercury they were absorbing along with the tuna, and they worried about the other ocean life getting swept up in the tuna boats’ big nets, especially the dolphins. Perhaps the biggest problem for the industry in recent years, though, is the consumer’s changing palate. Canned tuna was a staple of the mid–20th century American pantry, but per capita, canned tuna consumption has dropped around 40 percent since the mid-1980s. “I think canned tuna is looked at as—no offense—an old person’s product,” says Cliff White. “I don’t see too many of my peers in the 35-and-under cohort eating too much canned tuna.”
Canning facilities for the big three companies have shifted away from the West Coast. They’ve moved, in some cases, to territories like Puerto Rico and American Samoa, where wages are lower but, because they’re still technically on U.S. soil, there aren’t any import tariffs. Those big three brands themselves have changed ownership again and again over the years, with companies like Pillsbury, Heinz, and Ralston Purina all dipping their toes in the tuna business. These days, the big American tuna companies aren’t American. White says: “When you talk to the old tuna hands, what they’ll tell you is it’s a shame, because tuna used to be such an [ … ]”