Last night, 22 percent of American dinners included something that came from a can, according to market research firm NPD Group Inc. That's down from 1990 when 28 percent of American dinners involved pulling out the can opener.
"The long-term shift has been away from cans," concluded Harry Balzer, an NPD vice president in Chicago.
But the recession may have offered up a shiny opportunity to those in the business of selling canned foods. Tight budgets have sent value-craving Americans back down the grocery store's center aisles, and some products, such as canned vegetables, seem to be holding their own after earlier declines.
"It's definitely given us an opportunity to reach … new consumers in this environment," said Rich Tavoletti, executive director of the Canned Food Alliance. "It's going to be up to us to retain those going forward."
From a small, nondescript office in Green Tree, Mr. Tavoletti has been leading the Canned Food Alliance's low-key push to shore up the reputation of canned foods since 2005. He also handles duties as director of the container program for the American Iron and Steel Institute, which helps fund the alliance.
The alliance itself was founded in the early 1990s when steel companies, whose materials were used to make cans, decided they had concerns. "They looked at their shipments and saw them declining," said Mr. Tavoletti.
Canned foods had been riding high in the post-World War II years, but that had changed. Through the 1980s, beverage companies had switched from tinplate, made with steel, to aluminum. Demand for canned foods dropped as nutritional concerns about sodium in packaged foods, such as canned soups, turned some consumers off. Also, the process of cooking corn or peas in a can -- as many food processors do -- sometimes produced a softer texture than people liked as compared with frozen or fresh produce.
And, Mr. Balzer noted, that was the heyday of the microwave oven, which had become a staple in many kitchens and didn't interact well with metal.
The consortium brings together businesses all around the process of canning foods. Alliance members include steel producers such as U.S. Steel and ArcelorMittal, can manufacturers such as Ball Corp. and Silgan Containers, as well as food processors such as Bush's, General Mills, Seneca Foods and Red Gold Inc. Associate members include ICI Packaging Coatings and Valspar.
Members hold meetings in various places but the Canned Food Alliance's base in the Pittsburgh region is a result of its steel industry roots.
The alliance, which Mr. Tavoletti said was launched with a multimillion-dollar budget, lobbies on issues such as the types of food approved for programs to support mothers and infants. In 2008, it spent $120,000 on lobbying, according to OpenSecrets.org, down from $160,000 in 2005.
But the main focus has been on bolstering the image of the product. That has been done mainly by supplying information about nutrition and taste issues to dietitians and food-related media, as well as developing recipes to help cooks use the canned food in their cupboards.
Over the years, reports about canned foods from places such as the University of Illinois, University of Massachusetts and Rutgers University have been quoted in publications and on TV and radio programs, usually with a mention of the funding from the Canned Food Alliance.
One alliance release cited a 2007 review of literature conducted by the University of California, Davis, in saying the "loss of nutrients in fresh products during storage and cooking may be more substantial than commonly perceived." The release went on to say that while heat process of canned products hurts some nutrients, the storage of frozen products also can lose nutrients.
In July 2007, a Family Circle magazine health news roundup quoted Christine M. Bruhn, director of the Center for Consumer Research at the University of California, Davis, citing research that found canned tomatoes provide more lycopene than fresh.
This year alone, the alliance claims to have achieved 500 million impressions with its educational and recipe information placements, statistics tracked by public relations firm Ketchum, which has long handled the account. A release in June discussed a Rutgers finding that moms needed help figuring out what basics to keep in the kitchen to make quick, cost-effective meals.
The credibility of the messengers is critical in helping sell the message, but Mr. Tavoletti said the alliance's sponsorship doesn't alter the research. "You have to respect the integrity of the universities doing the research," he said.
In addition to nutrition, the alliance talks up convenience. A Web site, mealtime.org, lets users type in a product to find recipes that it could be used in. A recent entry of "lentil soup" popped up a recipe for a vegetarian brown rice casserole that also used canned roasted red peppers. It was supposed to take about 12 minutes to prepare and cook, and cost $7 to make four servings.
And, though a can is a relatively old-fashioned package, Mr. Tavoletti points out that it's a recyclable product -- a message that may resonate with the new focus on sustainability.
Overall, the group's core messages this year haven't changed, but the emphasis is leaning more toward value. With the economy sluggish, consumers are taking a hard look at the canned, boxed and shelf-stable items concentrated in the center of most grocery stores.
"All of a sudden, savings are sexy and center-store has moved to center-stage," wrote Phil Lempert, editor of the online publication Supermarket Guru.
Canned goods may have changed since some people last tried them. Companies offer more low-salt or no-salt options. Fruits can be had with lighter syrups. Many pop-top cans eliminate the need to dig out the can opener.
Still, not all canned foods are likely to benefit equally from shifting buying patterns, said Mr. Balzer. In general, he said, times like these mean things that are less expensive tend to do better. But canned tuna hasn't seen a lot of change in recent months, while soup ranks as one of the top 10 entrees now consumed by U.S. diners.
In response to a query, Canned Food Alliance member Del Monte Foods reported its vegetable and tomato categories have benefited from people making more meals at home, and the company believes that the educational information provided by the alliance helps. Del Monte, based in San Francisco, has an administrative office on the North Shore.
Meanwhile, another food company with Pittsburgh ties -- the H.J. Heinz Co. -- isn't a member of the Canned Food Alliance because it doesn't sell much canned food in the United States. The company is, however, a member of Canned Food UK, a similar organization. In the United Kingdom, Heinz sells more than 1.5 million cans of beans a day and about 330 million cans of soup each year.
Michael Mullen, vice president of corporate and government affairs, said the economy was having an impact there, too. "U.K. consumers are stretching their budgets due to the economy and using canned foods like ours for meals at home."
The alliance is waiting for results of new research surveying about 2,000 consumers, the first such research that it has done in a few years. That may help fine-tune the efforts into 2010.
The economy doesn't seem likely to improve overnight, and value probably will continue to be an emphasis. "As we know, consumers were and are looking for ways to put food on the table," said Mr. Tavoletti. "They want to focus on nutrition; but when money is short, sometimes nutrition takes a back seat."
The alliance hopes to convince more of them that canned foods are a good, nutritious option when people need to save a buck. People worry about that, he said. "We certainly want to get rid of any guilt a consumer might feel about using canned foods."
Teresa F. Lindeman can be reached at email@example.com or at 412-263-2018.