Canned seafood overtakes tuna sandwiches amid pandemic trend

Sardines swirled in preserved lemon.

Mackerel is marinated in curry sauce and chargrilled squid is marinated in ink.

All of these are long-popular delicacies in Europe that are now making their mark on American menus, too.

The country’s canned seafood industry has grown far beyond tuna sandwiches, a pandemic-era trend that began with Americans in lockdown demanding a cupboard staple.

Since then, the U.S. market has grown, driven by social media influencers promoting the benefits of high-performance protein foods in brightly colored metal containers.

On the TikTok channel Tinned — Fishionado, Kris Wilson posts fast-food recipes that combine leftover rice, soy sauce, avocado and runny eggs with a can of smoked mussels from Danish company Fangst .

Amid pandemic trends, the country’s canned seafood industry is growing well beyond tuna sandwiches.
Ali Hook/TikTok

In Europe, canned fish is now a regular feature on bar menus in places like San Francisco, Houston and New York, where customers can scoop the fish straight from the can.

There are even canned fish clubs modeled after wine clubs, sending members a variety of seafood each month packaged in various combinations of spices, oils and sauces.

Videos about canned fish, from tastings to tips on how to get rid of canned fish smell, have been viewed more than 30 million times on TikTok.

Now, canned fish is a fixture on bar menus from San Francisco to Houston to New York.
Lei Lili/Douyin

U.S. canned seafood industry sales have grown from $2.3 billion in 2018 to more than $2.7 billion so far this year, according to market research firm Circana.

Becca Millstein ate more canned fish during the coronavirus lockdown and opened a fish canning business in Los Angeles in 2020.

“When we’re all quarantining at home and 100% meal prepping day in and day out, it’s so time-consuming to create satisfying meals,” she said. “I found myself eating so much canned fish, and at the same time, I was The selection found while wandering the aisles of the local grocery store is not great.”

Milstein went to college in Spain and spent time in Portugal, two countries where canned fish has long been part of the diet, so she knew there were better options.

“I was eating the same canned fish that my great-grandmother Rose was eating in Brooklyn in the 1930s,” she said. “I thought that was crazy.”

Her company, Fishwife Tinned Seafood Co., is committed to providing high-quality, sustainably sourced seafood.

Cuisine popular in Europe is now making its mark on American menus.
Manuel Barrena –

Milstein said she searched for canneries in Spain and Portugal and contacted fishermen on the West Coast, who connected her with canneries in Oregon and Washington state.

“Our mission is really to stimulate and transform the canned fish industry to be what we imagined it to be,” Milstein said, adding that this means offering “more than just a tuna sandwich.”

Fishwife products, which sell for $7.99 to $10.99 a jar, are designed to be delicious meals that can be paired with rice, a charcuterie board or a salad, Milstein said.

Shown is the label of a can of Bear Brand salmon packaged in Astoria and San Francisco.
Buyenlarge via Getty Images

She added that her company’s sales grew 250% from 2021 to 2022 and are expected to jump about 150% this year, but she declined to disclose specific figures.

To that end, Fishwife’s products include smoked salmon cured with salt, garlic salt and brown sugar, then hand-canned alongside Sichuan chile chips made in Chengdu, China.

Anchovies from the Cantabrian Sea are enriched with premium Spanish extra virgin olive oil, sourced directly from farmers in northern Spain.

Canned swordfish is ready for the crew in the galley of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force ship Kashima in San Francisco, California.
San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

The company’s smoked albacore is caught in the Pacific Northwest, one fishing rod at a time, to minimize exposure to sea turtles, sharks, rays, dolphins and seabirds that may be inadvertently caught in commercial fishing operations harm to marine species.

“These are products you want to serve to people coming over for dinner,” Milstein said. “They’re not just something you want to mash up quickly and give yourself a quick, cheap protein.” Make Fix. “

Simi Grewal, co-founder of DECANTsf, a San Francisco wine shop and wine bar, said her business turned to canned fish to satisfy customers in part because there was no kitchen suitable for cooking.

“It’s very versatile, especially when we’re talking about pairing it with wine,” she says.

The price of canned fish in the store ranges from $8 for Ati Manel garfish (a needle-shaped fish from Portugal cooked in olive oil) to $36 for Conservas de Cambados “sea urchin caviar” from the mouth of Galicia, Spain.

“People make a lot of assumptions about canned fish being a cheap product. And you know, when you get here, it’s a carefully planned project,” she said. “I spend a lot of time every month researching these people and trying to find the latest products they’re putting out.”

Maria Finn, a Bay Area chef and author, says canned fish appeals to everyone from gourmets looking for the latest flavor to doomsdayers stocking warehouses.

She bought mussels from Patagonia Provisions for a quick snack on her annual mushroom hunt and packed cans of Wild Planet sardines in her bag in case wildfires threatened her home.

“I guess if there’s anything that can keep you alive for a long time, it’s a can of sardines in olive oil,” she joked.

Canned fish can be stored for up to five years and does not require refrigeration, making it an environmentally friendly alternative to meat, which is the largest agricultural source of greenhouse gases and has a larger carbon footprint than any other source of protein.

Sales of the U.S. canned seafood industry have surged from $2.3 billion in 2018 to more than $2.7 billion so far this year, according to market research firm Circana.
Lei Lili/Douyin

Scientists say the way humans produce and consume food is responsible for nearly 30% of greenhouse gas emissions.

But canned fish is not without its drawbacks.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration warns people, especially pregnant women, to avoid eating too much fish, especially tuna or swordfish, which may contain high amounts of mercury.

But many cans contain smaller fish like sardines and anchovies, which have the added benefit of being low in mercury. Health officials say canned products tend to have higher salt content than fresh seafood.

Greenpeace has raised concerns about overfishing to meet growing demand and reminded buyers to do their research to ensure products are sustainable.

Longlining, one of the most common fishing methods for tuna, can trap other species such as sea turtles or dolphins, according to environmental groups.

The California coastal town of Monterey was once home to a thriving sardine cannery that inspired John Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row.” The industry disappeared decades ago as fish populations plummeted. The canneries have long been replaced by hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops.

John Field, a fisheries biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, doesn’t expect large plants to return, but he said the trend could help small local canneries and sustainable fisheries.

He admits he’s not sure about ordering a can of canned goods off the menu.

“Personally, when I go out for an expensive dinner, I probably prefer fresh fish to canned,” he said.

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