Van Camp Seafood Company, Inc.
Van Camp Seafood Company, Inc.
Sales: $440 million (1991)
SICs: 2091 Canned & Cured Fish & Seafoods
Van Camp Seafood Company, Inc. produces Chicken of the Sea—the third most popular brand of canned tuna fish in the United States—as well as several other seafood products, such as canned salmon, crabmeat, shrimp, and oysters.
Canned tuna was first processed and marketed in 1903, the year the sardine catch suddenly dwindled. An enterprising fisherman processed the little-known tuna fish (named thunnos by the ancient Greeks, who considered it a rare delicacy) in San Pedro, California, the birthplace of the world’s tuna industry. While the fisherman’s 700 cases of tuna sold out immediately, the tuna industry faced some difficulties, particularly in keeping the fish fresh and ready for sale. As refrigeration for large volumes of fish was unavailable, the tuna had to be caught close to shore and brought back for sale quickly. However, tuna fishing is an especially slow process as tuna is one of the ocean’s most migratory fish, often traveling at a rate of 45 mph. The seafood industry was revolutionized before the First World War when a method of packing fresh fish in ice was developed, enabling fishermen to fish longer hours and thereby increase their catch. This method became popular and soon tuna fishing became more lucrative.
Gilbert Van Camp, descendant of Dutch seafaring immigrants, established Van Camp Seafood Company in San Diego, California, in 1914. At this time tuna fishing was still a seasonal activity, producing albacore tuna, called the chicken of the sea because of its white meat and mild flavor. Van Camp adopted the fishermen’s name for albacore tuna, “Chicken of the Sea,” as the brand name of his canned tuna. He also helped to turn tuna fishing into a year-round activity by catching and canning the more abundant yellowfin and skipjack tuna, which produced a less expensive, darker meat with a stronger flavor.
The year the Van Camp Seafood Company was established was propitious. War had broken out in Europe, and the United States soon became a major supplier of food to the blockaded allies. Food shortages at home encouraged the search for beef and pork substitutes, and tuna was declared by nutritionists a healthy alternative high in protein. By the end of the war, tuna was the most popular fish in America, and business at the Van Camp Seafood Company was booming.
As a result of the boom in the fish business, several tuna companies were established during the war, creating a more competitive environment. These companies, as well as the Van Camp Seafood Company, suffered in the recession that followed the end of the war. Nonetheless, Van Camp Seafood continued to grow. While tuna consumption declined in the heartland, it remained steady in the coastal areas. Meanwhile Van Camp Seafood did not limit itself to marketing only tuna. Several other fish varieties were canned under the Chicken of the Sea name, and Van Camp’s pet food business, using tuna parts not canned for human consumption, grew.
World War II was a turning point for many companies. Shortages of meat once again made fish popular, and tuna became the preferred fish among millions of men and women in uniform, who often had their first taste of tuna in the armed forces. After the war, tuna was established as a popular and widely available food in the United States. Furthermore, through the use of the new advertising medium, television, Chicken of the Sea became a leading seafood brand.
Competition in the canned seafood business was keen. In 1965, Van Camp Seafood Company was bought by the Ralston Purina Company, a major marketer of pet food, as part of its effort to streamline its operations by processing tuna, a major ingredient in its pet food. A recession in the late 1970s coupled with severe competition led Van Camp to close down its big cannery in 1984. Four years later, an Indonesian firm, the P. T. Mantrust Company, eager for an inroad into the lucrative U.S. tuna market, bought the Van Camp Seafood Company for 260 million dollars. Americans continue to run and staff the company.
Since then, president and CEO of Van Camp Seafood, Jose Munoz, and the chief financial officer, Peter Perkinson, have overseen the rapid expansion of the company, and Chicken of the Sea tuna has become one of the top three tuna companies in the United States, with central offices in San Diego and in American Samoa. Since the 1950s, product variety has been a chief concern of Van Camp Seafood; in addition to the several varieties of canned fish it produces, it markets tuna packed in water or oil in a variety of can sizes, as well as tuna processed with a low amount of sodium.
Recently, Van Camp Seafood’s industry has been affected by popular concerns for the environment. Beginning in the 1970s, environmentalists became concerned for the dolphin population, which was declining in the eastern Pacific Ocean where dolphins tend to school with the yellowfin tuna; caught along with tuna in drift nets, millions of dolphins were dying. A public letter-writing campaign begun in the 1980s, which threatened a boycott, prompted tuna companies to change their ways. In 1990, following the lead of competitor Star-Kist, Van Camp managers adopted an enlightened, though costly, policy. Declaring their tuna “dolphin safe,” the company refused to purchase tuna caught by drift net fishing methods or by any other means harmful to dolphins. This forced the fishing boats of the eastern Pacific to either find new areas in which to fish or to pursue the more elusive skipjack tuna, which doesn’t school with dolphins. U.S. government inspectors routinely accompany tuna fishing boats to monitor their practices and to declare whether or not tuna is dolphin safe. While the company had to raise the price of its tuna by a few cents a can, it expects the dolphin safe policy to pay off in terms of greater public trust and consumer consumption. Since this time, the company has also ensured that its cans are manufactured from recyclable materials.
At the onset of the 1990s Indonesia was second to Thailand in the exportation of tuna. Nevertheless, the Van Camp Seafood Company is an efficient, streamlined, and modern enterprise, poised to prosper as seafood becomes more important in an increasingly health conscious American diet that includes tuna salad sandwiches and even “tuna pizza.”
“Healthy Option,” Restaurant Hospitality, February 1991; “A Fishy Story (Killing of Dolphins Caught in Tuna Fishing Nets),” The Economist, May 4, 1991; Holland, Kerry L., “Exploitation on Porpoise: The Use of Purse Seine Nets by Commercial Tuna Fishermen in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean,” Syracuse Journal of International Law & Commerce, Spring 1991; Weinstein, Steve. “The 1991 Supermarket Sales Manual: Main Courses & Entrees.” Progressive Grocer, July 1991; Magnusson, Paul; Hong, Peter, “Save the Dolphins—Or Free Trade?” Business Week, February 17, 1992; Conan, Kerri, “Menu Ideas: Flounder No More.” Restaurant Business, March 1, 1992; Schwarz, Adam, “Pains of Indigestion: Indonesian Food Firm Faces Debt Problems,” Far Eastern Economic Review, March 19, 1992; Biberman, Thor Kamban. “Van Camp Seafood Sued for Failing to Pay for Tuna,” San Diego Daily Transcript, June 8, 1992.