The production of tuna in cans started in 1904 because the catches of sardines – in California – for canning went drastically down.
Tuna was used to keep the canneries open by running a new product, The start was with Albacore Tuna, which gets a delicate white colour and an excellent taste once steamed. After depletion of the Albacore Tuna stocks, the canners switched to Yellowfin. In the early ’50s, The USA was the largest tuna producer and responsible for at least one-third of the global tuna consumption.
Canned tuna has obvious a longer shelf life than fresh, frozen or dried salted tuna. Consumers find it easy to prepare, very nutritious, long shelflife and they can choose not only different kind of tuna but also marinated or with sauce. Nowadays, it is a commodity for retailers, with only a few brands left.
The first tuna was canned in oil because the canners used to do this with sardines. Today canned tuna is sold in clear or brine water or oil. The tuna inside is often the same quality. Some claim that the taste of tuna in oil is getting better when you keep it longer.
Tuna in brine is in the USA a price marker, which needs to be sold at or under US$ 0,99. Consequently, with increasing costs for fish, packaging, labour, the canners started to put less tuna in a can and now even the size of the can got smaller. In many other countries, the quality is much better – compared to what is available in the US – as consumers want value for money.
At present, tuna canned takes places in low labour cost countries. Nowadays, the leading tuna canning processing countries are Thailand, Ecuador, the Philippines and Spain. Labour is an important part of the production cost of a can of tuna. It explains why the canning plants are in low labour cost countries and not anymore in, i.e. the USA. There are also canneries close to the fishing grounds, i.e. Seychelles, Mauritius, PNG and Philippines.
In supermarkets, there are tuna cans from all over the world. The only factor taken into account by the retailers is the price. A few examples:
Tuna for the canning process is mainly coming from tuna purse seiners. This tuna is delivered frozen to the processing plants. Depending on the location of the processing plant, the delivery of the tuna comes with the tuna purse seiner, reefer container or a specialised vessel (reefer).
The unloaded tuna – if not temporarily stored in cold storage – is thawed with water. Once thawed the tuna is loaded on lorries with metal racks and driven in into massive steam chambers for pre-cooking the loins. Once well-cooked, the tuna needs to cool down before being cleaned and then hand-filleted by women. Filleting is a crucial part of the canning process. Together with the quality of the tuna used, the yield obtained during the filleting process is crucial for the cost price of the can of tuna. Other factors are costs of oil or water and the can.
The filling of the can with tuna is an automated process, and at the same other ingredients components as oil or water, salt can be added. With the lip on top can, the air removed in a vacuum sealer, sealing between the lid and then the can airtight. The cleaning of the outside of the can with water is the next step.
Next in the production process comes the visit to the autoclave. An autoclave is a long steam tunnel, for sterilising the canned product. The cans go in the autoclave on racks for easy transport, if all closed steam comes and once the required sterilising period is over, cold air replaces the steam.
When the cans are dry, they move to the labelling and packaging line. The cans leave the factory, after quality inspection, by truck or in dry containers to the retailers or food service companies.
USA, Spain and France still have canning plants to serve respective markets, but retailers have no real preference for the origin of their private label. The purchase price of a can of tuna is for retailers more important than quality, social circumstances or sustainability.
For tuna in pouches, it is more or less the same process and quality. The difference is that the pounce contains more spices, herbs and or marinades. The pouches are excellent for lunch breaks, etc..
There is another process for canning the tuna – called RAW pack – during this process the loins are not pre-cooked. The tuna goes raw in the can, and the cooking only takes place in the autoclave. It goes without saying that for this process you need good quality tuna, so with better quality and less cooking .. you have better tuna in the can at a slightly higher price.
The highest consumption of canned tuna is in Europe, followed by the United States of America. In the last years, the Middle East increased its imports heavily, because other protein-rich products became expensive for the consumers who have not so much to spend.
Quality is more important for consumers in Japan, Republic of Korea, France, Italy and Spain. At the same time, price is much more critical factor for customers in USA, Canada, UK and Germany and of course the developing countries.
In this segment, there a significant share for the pet food industry. The owners of cats and dogs buy more expensive good quality tuna to give their pets a balanced diet. The tuna must contain very low percentages of mercury. Otherwise, the pets will suffer as they can not sustain the mercury levels which the human body can absorb.
Tuna for cats and dogs is the safest tuna in the world.