ORLANDO, Fla. -- Supermarkets are not meeting the expectations of most heavy fish eaters when it comes to the quality of their fresh fish and seafood, according to research presented at the National Fisheries Institute Convention here.
In a study of consumer attitudes and behavior with regard to fresh fish consumption, only 17% of heavy fish eaters -- defined as those who eat fish at least 11 times in a three-month period -- said the product in supermarkets meets their expectations for quality.
Results from that study, a first-time effort titled "The Summary of Findings on the Relationship Between Attitudes and Usage in the Fish Market Category," were woven together with other research and presented by NPD Group, Rosemont, Ill., during an NFI convention seminar to give a more thorough picture of consumers' attitudes toward the category.
The second piece of research was NPD's "11th Annual Report on Eating Patterns in America," which served as background to the NFI-commissioned study on consumer attitudes.
Ninety percent of fish is consumed at home, according to the annual report on eating patterns, which is based on diary panel information from 2,000 households.
Indeed, 80% of all meals are eaten at home, according to the NPD annual report. But only slightly more than half (53%) of dollars spent to buy those meals are going to supermarkets, NPD found, reflecting an already familiar consumer pattern of using takeout sources for take-home eating.
Dave Jenkins, vice president of National Eating Trends, a service of NPD Group, who presented the data from both studies at the convention of the Arlington, Va.-based NFI, told attendees that, despite such statistics, "homemakers are still doing a lot of cooking." Meals prepared at home today, however, tend to contain fewer ingredients and fewer items made from scratch, he said.
Traditional meals -- featuring a center-of-the-plate dish, which could be fish-based -- are eroding and have taken a dive from 42% of meals in 1990 to 37% in 1996, according to NPD's diary report.
That trend is reflected in the five most popular ways to eat fish at home, which are not all standard center-of-the-plate preparations: tuna sandwiches, fresh fish, tuna casserole, frozen fish and shellfish, according to the annual diary report.
Jenkins suggested that one of the keys to driving fish consumption is offering consumers new, better methods for making fish dishes they are familiar with.
"Winners in the Home Meal Solution Derby will be those who show consumers ways to make what they are already doing easier," he said.
The annual research also pointed to seafood's home-meal replacement challenge: it indicated the category of fresh and frozen fish is the 10th most popular choice for home-meal solutions, ranking far below items like spaghetti, steak and chicken.
The findings of the new fish study, which was based on thousands of consumer interviews, showed that quality, health, price, safety and concerns about overfished resources are the top five issues currently affecting fish consumption.
Respondents for this study were grouped into light, medium and heavy fish consumers. They were asked which issues had influenced their fish consumption and which they agreed were important.
Of a total pool of more than 6,000 respondents, 1,448 were classified as heavy eaters, with a fish consumption frequency of at least 11 times every three months; 1,992 as medium eaters, consuming fish five to 10 times in that period; 2,201 were identified as light eaters, one to four times every three months; and 848 said they did not eat fish at all.
Heavy eaters claimed the quality of fresh fish and seafood and its perceived healthfulness -- compared with meat -- positively affected the frequency of their seafood consumption.
Forty-four percent of heavy eaters strongly agreed that fish and seafood were healthier than meat and poultry and 40% said their belief that seafood was healthier than meat and poultry definitely affected their consumption habits.
"With heavy users, health seems to be more of a driving force," noted NPD's Jenkins.
Heavy eaters' belief that fish and seafood are as safe as meat or poultry was also shown to have a positive effect on their consumption. Seventy-seven percent agreed either strongly or somewhat that fish was inspected as well or better than meat or poultry.
Heavy eaters also expressed concerns about the effect of the fishing industry on the environment, with 16% saying they strongly agreed fish and seafood resources are generally overfished or depleted.
Price is also a factor. Twenty-four percent of heavy users said the high price of seafood and fish, compared with meat and poultry, definitely had a negative effect on their consumption.
For light eaters, both the price of fish and environmental concerns were perceived to influence consumption.
Thirty-one percent said price definitely affected their consumption. Fifteen percent, 12% and 5% of light eaters, respectively, said their level of seafood consumption is affected by the catching of sea turtles, discards and aquaculture damaging the environment.
Jenkins also pointed to the important role the aging boomer population plays in driving fish sales. "Over the next 10 years, 45- to 60-year-olds will be the biggest part of the population," he said. "As their interest in health continues to grow they are more apt to do something about it."