Commoditization of canned tuna challenges segment’s sustainability efforts

Published on
June 19, 2018

It wasn’t long before an in-depth discussion of sustainable tuna products – carried out during a pre-conference session leading up to this week’s SeaWeb Seafood Summit in Barcelona, Spain – turned to a familiar question that has long puzzled the sector’s stakeholders: Who pays?

If you’re asking Jonathan Curto, the sustainability coordinator for Tri Marine Management Company, everybody pays at some point.

“I think that everybody bears a piece of that pie,” he said during a panel discussion (“Taking the Initiative: Company, Conservation and Collaborative Efforts to Address Tuna Fisheries”) on Monday, 18 June, a day before SWSS18’s official conference program kickoff.  

However, while sustainability (and its cost) is, at its heart, a group effort, oftentimes suppliers are the ones who invest first, Curto added.

“There’s cost to things like traceability programs, there’s cost to add in certification, there’s cost on the vessel, at the fleet level –  if you want to privatize fishing on free schools versus fishing on FADs, you have a higher additional cost day to day. So, in the short term, in a lot of ways, the cost lands on us [suppliers],” Curto said. 

Ideally, consumers will eventually shell out more for “a premium-value product that is more sustainable, that is higher quality,” Curto said. But as of now, especially in the United States, commoditization has been taking a steep toll on sustainable seafood products, particularly where canned tuna is concerned.

“In the United States, you’re seeing really the commoditization over a long period of time of canned tuna. It’s a shame, because in other markets canned tuna is a premium, gourmet, high-protein, high-value product,” according to Curto, who helmed the preliminary panel session.

“While I’d be willing to pay four or five dollars for premium canned tuna, I think the general American consumer might not because they’re not as educated, and that education piece also is a huge cost,” he added. “You have brand owners in the U.S. that find, to create more sustainable products, they have to spend a lot of time and a lot of marketing dollars putting the word out to consumers about why that product is more valuable and should come at a higher cost.”  

Curto’s fellow panelist and industry partner Luciano Pirovano, the sustainable development director at Bolton Food and chairman of the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation, agreed that commoditization presents a massive challenge for the canned tuna industry. Sustainability and innovation, while not without their obstacles, present a great opportunity for the sector overall, Pirovano noted. 

“Innovation together with sustainability is a great tool to create value and avoid the commoditization of tuna, which to me is a bigger, bigger issue because if tuna is becoming a commodity, there is no interest, no resources, there is nothing,” he said, adding that “the cost behind [sustainability] is an issue, but it’s also an opportunity to really start to present tuna in different ways.”

Consumers are becoming increasingly curious about the origins of their food, said Pirovano, and it’s time that brand owners within the canned tuna industry “teach consumers what is behind a single tuna can” through sustainability.    

“We all know that consumers are becoming more and more curious, want to know more, want to know where the tuna is coming from, and, to be honest we as industry have been a little bit shy about what is inside the can, what is behind it. To me, we have all the technology and also the media – because obviously digital is a great tool in this perspective – to start communicating to consumers what is behind it,” Pirovano said.

Want seafood news sent to your inbox?