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Top Story: Fish to the rescue?

Updated federal guidelines tell consumers to double seafood consumption

Stuart Hirsch
April 05, 2011

It’s no coincidence that salmon is prominently featured among fruits, vegetables and whole grains on the cover of the federal government’s revised Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010. Released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in late January, the new recommendations advise Americans to double the amount of seafood they eat because of its health benefits.

That news comes as no surprise to seafood industry experts. Anyone who’s hauled a net, crewed a trawler, waited on customers from behind a counter, or served up steaming platefuls of clams, crabs and lobster knows the value of their product.

Yet, U.S. per-capita consumption of seafood has declined since 2004, when the average American ate 16.6 pounds of fish and shellfish. By 2009, that figure slipped to 15.8 pounds. The latest decline was due to a decrease in the amount of canned seafood consumed, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Worldwide, the United States is the third-largest seafood market, behind China and Japan. Americans consumed a total of 4.833 billion pounds of seafood in 2009, slightly less than the 4.858 billion pounds in 2008.

Although industry experts say it’s too early to detect any changes in the buying or eating patterns of American consumers, the new dietary guidelines hold the promise of reversing that seven-year downward trend with seafood-specific recommendations like these:

• Eat a variety of seafood products in place of some meat and poultry.

• Adults should eat 8 or more ounces of seafood per week, which equals about 20 percent of the total recommendation for protein foods. Young children should eat less.

• Seafood contains omega-3 fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Moderate evidence shows that eating the recommended amount is associated with reduced cardiac deaths among individuals with and without pre-existing cardiovascular disease.

• Seafood consumption is particularly important for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, because moderate evidence indicates that  DHA is associated with improved infant health outcomes, such as visual and cognitive development. These women should eat at least 8 and up to 12 ounces of seafood each week, selecting species that are lower in methylmercury, such as salmon, anchovies, herring, sardines, Pacific oysters, trout and Atlantic and Pacific mackerel.

• The health benefits from eating a variety of seafood in the recommended amounts outweigh the health risks associated with methylmercury, moderate evidence shows.

“Seafood is nutrient-rich, meaning it packs healthy nutrients including omega-3s into less than a couple hundred calories per 4-ounce serving,” says Dr. Louis Aronne, internist and director of the Comprehensive Weight Control Program at Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center and clinical professor of medicine at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

“Omega-3 deficiency is a leading dietary contributor to preventable deaths, mostly from heart disease, in America. So it’s about time that the benefits of seafood are more clearly recognized in the dietary guidelines,” he adds.

Recognizing the benefits of seafood is one thing. Actually getting people to change what they eat is another. The new guidelines have received a fair amount of mainstream press attention, and are being touted by bloggers through social media channels, but that alone probably won’t be enough to change behavior. People need to hear the message from their most trusted medical advisors, says Gavin Gibbons, media relations director of the National Fisheries Institute (NFI) in McLean, Va.

“What we really need is for the new guidelines to permeate the world of dieticians, pediatricians, obstetricians and family physicians,” he says. “They are the people who are going to take this federal policy and speak with authority on it.”

What’s also necessary is taking the mystery out of preparing fish, which is especially important when most people are simply scrambling to get the family fed after long days of work, school, activities and homework, Gibbons says.

“Most people know that seafood is healthful, but we now have a lost generation of seafood eaters,” because of changing lifestyles, says Jennifer McGuire, a registered dietician and manager of nutrition communication for NFI.

“The exposure people have to seafood has dropped, and Americans continue to eat more red meat and poultry. Seafood is just not making its way into peoples’ lives in any significant way,” she says.

McGuire calls seafood “nature’s fast food,” because in most cases it can be prepared and served in as little as 10 minutes.
“The recommendation is to eat seafood two times a week. At most, that’s an additional serving per week, which is very incremental and quite attainable,” she says.

Guidelines in action 

Many seafood restaurants already offer their customers menu items featuring simple and healthier options. Red Lobster, a subsidiary of Darden Restaurants in Orlando, Fla., and the largest casual-dining seafood restaurant in the world with nearly 700 stores in the United States and Canada, has no immediate plans to change any of its operations or marketing strategies because of the new guidelines.

The health virtues of fresh fish or shellfish grilled, broiled or steamed “is something that Red Lobster has known for a long time,” says Rich Jeffers, company spokesman. “It’s certainly something we value, and think that our customers value.”

The company offers consumers a selection of eight different kinds of fresh fish daily, as well as its Lighthouse Selections menu of seafood and side dishes tailored for people who want healthful preparations.

In addition, Red Lobster’s website features comprehensive information on nutrition, plus interactive tools and tips about how to prepare fish at home and how to cut calories, carbohydrates and fat while dining out.

Like Red Lobster, Phillips Seafood Restaurants in Baltimore is responding to consumer demand for healthier options, says VP of Marketing Honey Konicoff. The company operates seven high-volume restaurants in the eastern United States, as well as a network of franchises in major airports around the country.

Last year, Phillips began broiling its signature menu item, Maryland crab cakes, unless customers specifically request another cooking method. “Our restaurants have always been willing to bake and broil for taste or health,” Konicoff says.

Phillips is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of blue-swimming crabmeat, with processing facilities in Southeast Asia and Latin America. The company also produces retail seafood products and is developing items to expand that market, Konicoff says.

The new guidelines don’t just recommend eating more fish, but also clear up confusion about health issues related to eating some species, which is likely to help suppliers.

Canned tuna sales have declined ever since the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration issued a joint advisory in 2004 urging pregnant or nursing women and young children to limit their consumption of albacore tuna because of fears about high concentrations of methylmercury.

Now, the “Big Three” canned tuna companies — StarKist, Bumble Bee Foods and Chicken of the Sea International — have embarked on a joint marketing campaign to win back wary consumers [see tuna feature in March 2011 SFB, p. 70].

The goal of the Tuna the Wonderfish! advertising campaign is to lift the category as a whole. In that sense, the new dietary guidelines couldn’t have come at a better time.

“For the first time, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans have identified seafood as a food that we need to eat more of, which we expect will result in increased seafood consumption,” says StarKist Director of Marketing Jennifer Albert. “The guidelines also recommend specific quantities, which should help consumers when planning meals. Our goal is to make the tuna category top of mind with consumers of all ages.”

With consumers looking for healthier food options, StarKist has responded with new frozen products, SeaSations fillets and SeaSations entrées, in select regional markets, Albert says.

“Our mission at StarKist is to help consumers make seafood easy and enjoyable with our convenient products and easy recipe ideas. We continue to promote our shelf-stable tuna as an easy, convenient source of protein and regularly provide consumers with ideas for how to include more tuna in their family meals through our website, and on Facebook and Twitter,” she says.



Focus on convenience 

StarKist, Phillips and other big players in the seafood industry are on the right track by developing new frozen and shelf-stable products that are convenient. According to international research company Mintel, the seafood retail market hit a high of $15.8 billion in total U.S. sales in 2010.

Mintel predicts the retail market for seafood will continue to grow incrementally with a compound annual growth rate of 4.7 percent from 2011 to 2015 at current prices. By 2015 Mintel expects seafood sales to reach nearly $20 billion at U.S. retail outlets.

Although that’s a lot of money, the seafood category still lags far behind the other animal proteins such as red meat and poultry. Estimated red meat sales were $71.9 billion in 2010, while poultry sales were $41.4 billion, according to Mintel.

The new dietary guidelines mesh nicely with a 2009 survey Mintel conducted about Americans’ attitude toward food, weight and diet. In that report, the vast majority of respondents (86 percent) indicated that healthy eating is very or somewhat important to them. The results were particularly strong among respondents aged 18 to 34.

“Given these figures, the fish and seafood industry, which is perceived as offering better-for-you options, has the opportunity to connect with health-conscious members of the population, but to an even greater degree with younger shoppers who have the potential to become lifetime fish and seafood fans,” Mintel’s latest seafood report states.

In other findings, with 53 percent of sales, consumers still prefer fresh seafood over any other option because it is generally considered better tasting than frozen, even though fresh costs more.

Because shelf-stable seafood products offer a lower price point to recession-weary shoppers, Mintel predicts that this segment will grow 18 percent from 2011 to 2015.

But the frozen fish segment, with its appeal of convenience and variety, has gown steadily since 2006, according to Mintel. Frozen products mean shoppers don’t have to wait in line at a seafood counter, which is one reason the segment has increased, according to Mintel. Another is that many frozen products are pre-seasoned, “more easily replicating the dining-out experience by offering similar products and flavors to those that consumers enjoy while eating out.”

The new dietary guidelines are potentially good news for the seafood industry. The only question, and it’s a big one, is whether Americans are ready to embrace healthy eating and give up some of their steak and chicken and choose seafood as an alternate source of protein in their diet.


Contributing Editor Stuart Hirsch lives in Indianapolis

April 2011 - SeaFood Business 

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