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Millennials might be killing canned tuna, but it’s not because they hate can openers

Of all the things that millennials have killed – bar soap,
“Breastaurants,” fabric softener, doorbells – their newest
victim is a perplexingly unsolved murder. A Wall Street Journal
article about the tuna industry alleges that millennials are
killing it – not because they don’t like eating fish, but
because they don’t own can openers.

“In a country focused on convenience, canned tuna isn’t cutting
it with consumers. Many can’t be bothered to open and drain the
cans, or fetch utensils and dishes to eat the tuna,” Jesse
Newman and Annie Gasparro wrote.

“A lot of millennials don’t even own can openers,” Andy Mecs,
vice president of marketing and innovation for Pittsburgh-based
StarKist, a subsidiary of South Korea’s Dongwon Group, told The
Journal. The story acknowledged that sales of fresh and frozen
tuna were on the rise: “Just 32 percent of consumers aged 18 to
34 recently bought canned fish or shellfish, compared with 45
percent of those 55 years old and older, according to
market-research firm Mintel.”

This raised a couple of questions for millennials. If they’re
too lazy to use can openers, why are sales of fresh fish –
which is much more labor-intensive to prepare – on the rise in
that age group? Does the can-free generation also eschew
garbanzo beans and San Marzano tomatoes? Maybe it’s . . . not
about cans at all?

“Ah yes, Millennials are abandoning canned tuna because we’re
lazy,” said Twitter user @jbouie, “and not because uh, it’s
gross as hell.”

It’s true that a can opener is not as much of a kitchen
necessity as it used to be. Soups and other canned goods often
have a pull tab, so you can open them with your hands. And some
types of foods that were often canned now come in other types
of packaging – see tubes of tomato paste and Tetra Paks of
condensed milk. There’s even a new eco-friendly alternative,
the cardboard Cartocan, with an easy-to-open lid. Studies have
shown that millennials are less likely to cook at home, and
decluttering and living a minimalist lifestyle have been major
trends among young people in recent years.

But that doesn’t explain why millennials aren’t eating too much
tuna. StarKist tuna has come in a pouch – hailed as “the
biggest wave of innovation in tuna since StarKist pioneered
canned tuna in the 1920s” – since the year 2000, when many
millennials were barely in middle school. Consumers don’t even
have to drain the pouch, which “contains virtually no liquid.”
It’s also easy to find pull-tab tuna cans from large-scale
brands such as Chicken of the Sea and specialty producers such
as Genova.

And has can opener ownership actually gone down? According to
market researchers at the NPD Group, “Spice products,
mixing/prep bowls and nonelectric can openers were the kitchen
gadgets that contributed the most dollar sales gains during the
12 months ending September 2015.” Even though those stats are a
few years old and not segmented by age, they show that the can
opener is not the dusty historical relic people presume it to
be.

Here’s an alternate theory: Maybe millennials aren’t eating as
much tuna because they grew up learning about how dolphins –
the magical creatures of their Lisa Frank Trapper Keepers –
were often killed when they became trapped in tuna nets? Or
maybe it’s because they’re a health-conscious generation that
worries about mercury poisoning? Or maybe it’s because it’s a
generation that cares about the environment and struggles with
the level of tuna overfishing? (Okay, it’s still the generation
that made Ahi poke bowls megapopular, so maybe not that one.)

Perhaps it’s just the unglamorous packaging and stodgy
connotations of a can. After all, several food trend
prognosticators – including The Washington Post, twice – have
written about how chefs and tastemakers have sparked an
interest in high-quality imported preserved seafood lately. But
when they talk about it, they don’t call those sardines canned
– they’re tinned.

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