A sea of flavored, gourmet and pouch tunas has gotten things jumping in the tuna aisle, where they have opened up quite a few new cross-merchandising opportunities, retailers told SN.For many consumers, however, traditional 6-ounce cans remain the catch of the day, they said. Strong manufacturer promotional support has allowed retailers to offer the 6-ounce cans for 99 cents or less each.In one recent

A sea of flavored, gourmet and pouch tunas has gotten things jumping in the tuna aisle, where they have opened up quite a few new cross-merchandising opportunities, retailers told SN.

For many consumers, however, traditional 6-ounce cans remain the catch of the day, they said. Strong manufacturer promotional support has allowed retailers to offer the 6-ounce cans for 99 cents or less each.

In one recent example, Foodtown, a 55-store chain based in Carteret, N.J., gave prominent store circular exposure to StarKist canned tuna, offering solid white for 89 cents each, and chunk light, three for $2.

"Promotional activity has remained on the 6-ounce cans, so they continue to do well," said Ray Kuruc, the retailer's grocery category manager.

How much longer canned will dominate the aisle remains to be seen. The many packaging and flavor innovations riding in tandem with the introduction of pouches have not only changed the look of the tuna section, but also attracted new users to the category. Tempting flavors like zesty lemon and hickory-smoked tuna are designed to make tuna enjoyable on its own, or as an ingredient in sandwiches, salads and other recipes.

"[Manufacturers] have definitely become more creative with the category," said Mark Clements, grocery buyer, Clements' Marketplace, Portsmouth, R.I.

The introductions come at a time when canned tuna sales are as flat as a flounder. Dollar sales of the top 20 tuna brands reached $1.1 billion in supermarkets for the 52 weeks ending Jan. 25, a 0.7% increase from the same period the previous year, according to Information Resources Inc., Chicago.

The many new product introductions are designed to change that. Packaging innovations like StarKist Seafoods' Flavor Fresh Pouch have turned tuna into an easy meal solution that doesn't require draining or a can opener. The company's new Tuna Creations line of premium chunk-light marinated tuna is packaged as such. Varieties include Zesty Lemon Pepper, Hickory-Smoked and Sweet & Spicy. Each 5-ounce pouch carries a suggested retail price of $1.99. StarKist Seafood, San Francisco, is a division of the Del Monte Corp.

"The pouch products typically have better-quality tuna and less liquid," Kuruc of Foodtown noted.

Doug's Supermarkets, Warroad, Minn., carries select pouches to give its shoppers product variety, according to Ed Foster, grocery manager. Some consumers prefer the pouches because, unlike canned, they don't require draining.

"People like it because it's drier," Foster said.

Budget-friendly canned tuna, specifically albacore, remains the category leader, and accounts for the bulk of the 4-foot section at Doug's, Foster said.

Indeed, cans are making flavorful additions as well. One new offering from Bumble Bee, San Diego, is "Touch of Lemon," a premium chunk-light tuna with lemon juice. Packaged in a can with bright yellow labeling, it carries a suggested retail of 69 cents to 79 cents per 6-ounce can.

Like other new items, Bumble Bee's "Touch of Lemon" is positioned as a nutritious, high-quality alternative to convenience foods, according to the company.

"Its superior quality and taste mean it can be enjoyed without adding high-calorie mixing ingredients," Christopher Lischewski, Bumble Bee's president and chief executive officer, said in a prepared statement.

Along with pouches and flavors, the category has witnessed an increase in upscale and gourmet tunas, like yellowfin tuna in olive oil and Bumble Bee's Prime Fillet, a hand-selected, solid white albacore product described as the "firmest, best-tasting albacore ever" and the "the new gold standard in canned tuna." The tuna is packaged in a high-gloss, gold-and-black can to differentiate it on supermarket shelves. The SRP is $1.99 per 6-ounce can.

Tuna-based meal kits have also enhanced the category. For instance, StarKist has introduced StarKist Lunch To-Go. The kit comes with 3 ounces of tuna in the StarKist Flavor Fresh Pouch, mayonnaise and relish packets, a mixing spoon, six crackers and a mint.

Some retailers are supporting the new product introductions with secondary displays and additional promotional activities. About once a month, Sherm's Thunderbird-Food 4 Less, Medford, Ore., merchandises select pouch tuna in the deli/bakery department to give shoppers a meal solution, according to Wayne Wiederman, general manager.

Foodtown also cross merchandises some of the new items by placing shippers in areas of the store other than the canned tuna aisle, according to Kuruc. Upscale tunas, particularly Bumble Bee's Prime Fillet, have performed well, he added.

While the new items are moving at Foodtown, Kuruc expected demand to be much greater than it has been, particularly for the pouches.

"Due to the convenience, I thought reception would be better," he said, attributing this response to the higher price points of the new pouch and gourmet products. Clements of Clements' Marketplace agreed, saying the pouches cost about 30% more than canned.

"Nearly every week, one of the cans is on sale, so I guess people feel why should they pay more for a pouch," he said.

Regional tuna consumption trends may also be a factor. Kuruc of Foodtown noted that many of the pouches contain chunk-light tuna, not white or albacore, the big seller in the Foodtown market.

"Manufacturers can come out with whatever flavor they want in chunk light, but it won't sell as well in this market as white tuna," Kuruc said.

Foodtown said it doesn't plan to decrease the number of pouch stockkeeping units anytime soon, but predicted there will be a brand shakeout, leaving only the category leaders alive.

"I think some of the flavors will go away due to decreased acceptance," Kuruc said.

The Mercury Debate

Hunger Mountain Co-Op, a single-unit supermarket in Montpelier, Vt., just put up signs in its fresh fish department warning certain consumers to limit consumption of most large predator species due to potentially unsafe levels of methylmercury. The canned tuna aisle might be next.

"It's something we would consider," Michael Noone, the store's prepared-foods manager, told SN.

Despite the increased scrutiny of canned tuna, consumers haven't significantly altered category shopping habits, said Ray Kuruc, grocery category manager for Foodtown, a 55-unit chain based in Carteret, N.J.

"There may be a lot of talk about these kinds of issues initially, but it doesn't seem to affect sales too much," he said, noting that canned tuna sales in his stores have been consistent.

The talk comes after the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency released a revised consumer advisory on methylmercury -- for species like shark, swordfish, king mackerel, tilefish and certain shellfish -- directed at women who may become pregnant, pregnant women, nursing mothers and young children.

So far, there are no plans to mandate labels on cans, even though tuna is part of the advisory. Here, it recommends that sensitive populations eat no more than 12 ounces -- two average meals -- a week of canned tuna, shrimp, salmon, pollock and catfish.

The advisory also states that sensitive populations should eat no more than 6 ounces of albacore tuna per week because albacore has higher mercury levels than light.

The FDA and EPA are balancing the warning with the statement that fish and shellfish can be important parts of a healthy and balanced diet. Indeed, the U.S. Tuna Foundation, Washington, which represents tuna processing companies, maintains that the health benefits of tuna outweigh the risks. It's testing a television and radio campaign to tout the benefits of tuna. Such benefits are that it's high in protein; contains omega-3 fatty acids, which are said to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease; and is low in fat. Developed by Marriner Marketing, an advertising firm in Columbia, Md., the "Tuna. Smart Catch" campaign features women at home discussing reasons why they're confident about serving tuna to their families.