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Anne Forristall Luke

President, U.S. Tuna Foundation, Washington,
    D.C.
By James Wright
March 01, 2007

Washington, D.C., isn't known as a big seafood town, despite its proximity to Chesapeake Bay, land of the blue crab. The nation's capitol, however, is where business and government assemble to develop industry-shaping policies. 
 The three major U.S. tuna canners - Bumble Bee, StarKist and Chicken of the Sea, which together account for approximately 90 percent of all U.S. canned tuna sales - are represented on Capitol Hill by the U.S. Tuna Foundation. Last year the group hired Anne Forristall Luke as its president, succeeding David Burney, who retired after 10 years as executive director. Burney's swan song at the USTF was the defeat of California's attorney general in a Proposition 65 lawsuit last May. By winning the Prop 65 case, tuna canners averted a state law that would have forced them to label their product as containing a potentially hazardous ingredient, in this case the neurotoxin methylmercury.

While Luke, 48, is a newcomer to the seafood industry, her 
experience in government-relations is strong. She earned a bachelor's degree in political science from Edinboro University in Edinboro, Pa., in 1980. Prior to taking the helm at the USTF, she was a principal 
at MGN, an independent federal government relations firm in 
Washington that specializes in legislative and regulatory strategy.

Her new role also requires a great deal of public relations - 
assuring American consumers that canned tuna should remain a staple of their diets as it has been for decades. The USTF last year launched a three-year, $5 million outreach campaign that not only espouses canned tuna's healthy virtues but also directly addresses common misperceptions about the health risks of eating tuna.

I spoke with Luke in mid-January to talk tuna and find out where the organization is heading.

WRIGHT : What is the most valuable thing you've learned in your first year at the USTF?

FORRISTALL LUKE : How terrific a product we have and how important seafood is to health, fitness and nutrition. I always liked tuna, I always ate it, but I never thought about the importance of seafood to a heart-healthy diet.

A key point is the quality of canned tuna at its price point. It's a safe, healthy, affordable product. I've learned a lot about obesity and heart disease and the threat these diseases pose to public health, and also about American consumers in general.

 

What is the most challenging aspect of your job?

Fighting misperceptions about canned tuna. There has been a tremendous amount of misinformation, and the essential message about the health benefits of seafood has become clouded in many peoples' minds. It's sort of like breaking through all the clutter. It's a big challenge.

 

Is canned tuna unfairly linked to mercury because of its popularity and affordability?

Yes. Canned tuna has been a staple of Americans' diet for 100 years. It is a very popular product and when Americans hear misinformation [about mercury] they associate it with all seafood, which is unfortunate. Some very important points get lost in the confusion. Not eating enough fish is the real problem.

 

How important was the Prop 65 ruling last year?

That decision was extremely important for the whole seafood industry, and for consumers too. For the first time, the issue of mercury was [independently] reviewed. Prop 65 did not apply to canned tuna; it would not reach the [mercury] threshold that Prop 65 covered. The healthfulness of the product was held up in court. The impact of that decision, because it irrefutably backed our claim, really adds to our overall message. (California is appealing the Prop 65 decision. See Newsline, page 12.)

 

Why is the USTF now based in Washington?

David Burney was [based] in San Diego for 10 years. Upon his retirement, the USTF decided it needed its president in Washington. As an industry we have to deal with policy issues facing international trade, food safety, sustainability and the like. The debates that focus on these issues happen in Washington.

What does the consumer campaign aim to do?

To help consumers understand they need to eat more fish and that canned tuna is the most affordable, acceptable and convenient way. The strategic public affairs campaign is focused on consumers.

The USTF will also be actively encouraging government agencies to follow through on recommendations made by the Institute of Health, which found spillover effects caused by confusion about the [federal government's] advice on mercury and seafood consumption and whom it applies to. Government agencies need to work together more efficiently to develop clear communication tools for consumers and tailor the advice they're given.

We're putting our money where our mouth is. The member companies are recognizing that we need to be more proactive in reaching out to consumers. The campaign represents a much higher level of financial commitment.

 

When can we expect to see a generic marketing effort for tuna, similar to beef and pork?

We're trying to get the public affairs campaign off the ground first. We hope about 18 months from now for the category-growth advertising campaign to begin.

 

Will the message focus on health or attack misleading information?

Both. We want to spend our time talking about how great our product is, but we also have a responsibility to answer consumers' questions. Mercury is present in a lot of people's minds, and in order to have credibility as spokespeople advocating our product, we have a responsibility to answer [questions] and we are eager to do that.

 

Assistant Editor James Wright can be
e-mailed at jwright@divcom.com

 

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