The three leading tuna brands introduce retort pouches.

Regardless of how consumers feel about tuna in pouches instead of cans, somebody obviously likes the idea. Taking their cue from H.J. Heinz's StarKist unit, Chicken of the Sea and Bumble Bee brands recently announced their respective rollouts of tuna fish in vacuum-packed pouches.

Shelf-stable tuna is a category in need of rejuvenation, and the major processors are betting improved packaging is the answer. Don Binotto, managing director of StarKist Seafood, predicts the pouch will expand U.S. tuna sales 5 percent by 1992. With other players weighing in with innovations of their own, that forecast may prove conservative.

No-drain tuna in a vacuum-packed foil pouch is just part of the appeal of the Tuna Salad Kit from Chicken of the Sea International. The convenience item includes packets of dry seasoning and flavored mayonnaise or salad dressing. "We've taken the pouch to the next level," proclaims Don George, senior vice president of marketing at the San Diego-based firm. "We're just introducing it to the trade, and the reception has been tremendous."

Retailers appreciate the ease of merchandising pouches vs. cans. The StarKist pouches, for example, stand upright in a box that requires less shelf space and stock-keeping attention than cans.

Consumer enthusiasm lags, but George chalks that up to industry's need to make the case for pouches' convenience and improved quality, thanks to shorter retort times. "It's an education process, and that's why we're going to concentrate on in-store demonstrations," he says.

The Tuna Salad Kit, available in four varieties, has a shelf life of nine months, though the 7.1 oz. tuna pouch is stable for five years. The limiting factor is the mayo and salad dressing: even packed in Cryovac film, the oils will result in rancidity. Paper foil is used for the seasonings.

Rather than be left behind in the pouch movement, ConAgra's Bumble Bee unit rushed to announce its tuna pouches two days after Chicken of the Sea. Chunk white albacore and chunk light tuna in 3 oz. and 7 oz. pouches were being tested in New York, Florida and the Northwest.

Like StarKist, Chicken of the Sea entered the foodservice segment with its product a year before the retail rollout. Those pouches contain 43 ounces of tuna, enough to make 22 sandwiches. Worker safety and disposal issues are making pouches the packaging of choice over #10 cans in foodservice.

Before pouches can replace cans, faster fill speeds will be needed. Chicken of the Sea fills 200 cans per minute, but only 40 pouches per minute.