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US tuna brand hooks consumers with quality

By Jenni Spinner+

Last updated on 22-Jan-2014 at 10:19 GMT2014-01-22T10:19:58Z

American Tuna is sustainable, high-quality, pole-caught fish packaged raw, then cooked in the can.
American Tuna is sustainable, high-quality, pole-caught fish packaged raw, then cooked in the can.

American Tuna seeks to distinguish itself from other tuna brands by focusing on sustainable fishing and quality product.

Natalie Webster of American Tuna told the company was founded in 2007 by a collection of pole-caught tuna fisheries to set them apart from the rest of the field.

Up until that time, these fishermen were lumped in with all the others and all the bad news about tuna, dolphins, mercury levels, etc.,” she said.

A family affair

As it is for many in the industry, tuna fishing is a family business for Webster. Her father was a tuna fisherman, her husband is in the business, and now she’s a driving force between American Tuna.

The brand represents the life’s work of six fishing families that catch and sell premium albacore tuna. The product stands out by emphasizing quality, flavor, and sustainability.

Instead of conventional tuna fishing, which uses nets and other methods to cull tuna from the ocean, American Tuna’s fisheries specialize in the practice of pole fishing, which is sightly more costly, but, Webster said, it yields better results.

The North Pacific Albacore tuna population that American Tuna culls from is “very different” from the tuna offered up by most retail products, according to Webster. Other fisheries cull from older tuna featuring lower fat content (which reduces flavor), and living in deeper waters (where they build up mercury content).

Webster said before its company hit the scene, high-profit tuna fishing was in danger of edging the pole fishers out.

My father told me that my husband was in a dying industry because the fishermen were going away,” Webster said. “There was no value put on this method of fishing, and most US citizens didn’t even know it existed."

Sharing the story

Webster told FPD that she, her husband and other pole-fishing experts wanted to tell the story of the business—its sustainability, healthful product and superior product quality—to keep the pole-fishing industry alive.

American Tuna pursued third-party certification of its product, to show sustainability and quality-minded consumers that its product was the real deal. In 2007, the fishery became the first in the world to be certified; however, Webster said, there was still the matter of spreading the good news to the world.

Now, we had a platform to tell our story, but we had no product to drive the consumers to,” she said.

The American Tuna brand’s launch of simple, straight-forward canned tuna provided that platform for discerning tuna fans to rally around.

Made in the USA

American Tuna specializes in pole-caught tuna, a more sustainable fishing method.

American Tuna is just what it says on the label—US caught, processed in the US at an Oregon "micro-canner."

It would be cheaper to process offshore, but we wanted to keep it here in the States,” Webster said. “It’s helped keep jobs here in the US.

As Webster pointed out, American tuna used to be a stronger business but has been edged out by foreign competition.

The US used to be the tuna capital of the world,” she said. “Now, it’s mostly foreign, because there’s much less oversight overseas about fishing practices.”

That lack of oversight, Webster told FPD, has all but decimated tuna populations around the globe. American Tuna is seeking to offset the imbalance.

Discerning customers

American Tuna is geared toward well-informed, responsible consumers, who care about buying sustainable food, and who are interested in learning exactly where their food comes from.

With American Tuna, consumers can choose local, and every can is traceable back to the vessel its harvested from,” Webster said.

Also, Webster said, the choice to process the product in the US reinforces American Tuna’s status as a thoroughly American product that enables consumers to buy local and feel confident about the fish.

Abroad, they pre-cook the loins first, then put them into the can, top it off with soy or water or other additives, then they cook the fish a second time in the can,” she said. “With American Tuna, the fish is put into the can raw, then cook it once.”

This practice uses less energy but also helps retain product integrity and quality.

The natural fish oil stays in the can,” Webster said. “There’s no soy added, no water.”

The difference, Webster added, is visible upon opening a can; there is just tuna steak, plain and simple.

Standing out

While American Tuna’s sustainable, natural, premium-quality product comes with a much higher price tag than most tuna brands, Webster said the brand’s stand-out characteristics have resonated with consumers looking for a product they can count on.

American Tuna is not Bumblebee Tuna, and it’s never going to be,” she said. “We provide much more value.”

Webster pointed out that in addition to the less-appetizing taste that the big retail brands offer, the filler in the cans causes the savings to be all but non-existent.

Consumers might look at those brands and think, ‘Look at how much I’m saving on these cans,’ but it’s really misleading,” she said. “With the fillers, 5 oz. on the label doesn’t mean 5 oz. of fish.”

Growing strong

In the nearly seven years since American Tuna was born, the brand has grown by leaps and bounds, strong evidence that premium, sustainable tuna is something US consumers hunger for.

We started canning 6.5 tons the first year,” she said. “We’re now producing more than 500 tons, in a relatively bad economy; the time when we started growing is very significant.”

While the brand is sold on shelves nationwide through retailers like Whole Foods and A&P and Webster said American Tuna’s biggest business is with foodservice clients. Chains like ‘Wichcraft, and restaurants in attractions like zoos and aquariums, reportedly have embraced the product thanks to its quality and sustainable nature.

Chefs are choosing to source their ingredients, including tuna, more responsibly,” Webster said. “If you’re making choices about using healthful materials, beyond a shadow of a doubt, this is what you’re going to choose.”

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