When the Food and Drug Administration cautioned last year that women of childbearing age and young children should limit their tuna consumption because of potential dangers from mercury, Americans got the message. Sales in the $1.5 billion tuna industry are down 10% since 2004, and national surveys show that 23% of people are "extremely concerned" or "very concerned" about mercury in fish, up from 15% two years earlier, according to the NPD Group, a market-research firm. The embattled makers of Bumble Bee, StarKist and Chicken of the Sea--which account for 85% of the tuna sold in the U.S.--are fighting back with plans for a marketing campaign that will spotlight the nutritional benefits of the low-fat, no-carb and omega-3-rich seafood. Test runs of TV and radio commercials in Pittsburgh, Pa., and St. Louis, Mo., for the proposed "Tuna. Smart catch" campaign last year temporarily boosted sales with their implied message that you can have your tuna and eat it too--safely. The ads omitted the neurotoxin issue altogether.
But Big Tuna has run into a hitch in trying to take its campaign nationwide. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB)--which regulates such marketing efforts--has been sitting on the proposal for the campaign. The government, which has been criticized by environmental groups for dragging its feet in adding tuna to its seafood health advisories, may be concerned about creating consumer confusion by giving a thumbs-up to the tuna industry's commercials. The OMB declined to comment. "There's a problem with government-approved commercials that imply there is nothing to worry about. It isn't full disclosure," said Environmental Working Group spokeswoman Lauren Sucher. Indeed, such mixed signals would leave fish lovers in something of a catch-22.