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Annals of Marketing
Marketing a Colour Change in Fish
Monday, 9th May, 2011  - David Farmer
The Atlantic bluefin, the biggest bluefin, is now Japan's most favored of all tuna.

You are no doubt aware of the fishy story about an Alaskan salmon which had white coloured flesh when all the other salmon had pink to red coloured flesh. The public were used to buying cans of pink salmon which made it difficult to sell the salmon with white flesh. The solution was to display on the cans; 'guaranteed not to turn pink in the can.' This is unlikely to be true but it's a nice marketing story.

Here is a true marketing tale about a consumer shift from white fleshed tuna to red fleshed tuna. The quotes are from 'Tunas End', New York Times, 28th June, 2010, by Paul Geenberg, which quotes several authorities.

"Originally, fish with red flesh were looked down on in Japan as a low-class food, and white fish were much preferred," one of the book's contributors, Michiyo Murata, writes. "Fish with red flesh tended to spoil quickly and develop a noticeable stench, so in the days before refrigeration the Japanese aristocracy despised them, and this attitude was adopted by the citizens of Edo [old Tokyo]." Other Japanese scholars like the sushi historian Masuo Yoshino confirm this. Murata, meanwhile, goes on to note that tuna were introduced into sushi only 170 years ago, when a large catch came into Edo one season. On that day a local sushi chef marinated a few pieces of tuna in soy sauce and served it as "nigiri sushi."

A major yield of all of this Japanese fishing effort was yellowfin tuna. Though they ate bluefin, Japanese did not hold them in high regard before the 1960s, and it took a confluence of socioeconomic factors in both Japan and the West to bring bluefin to the fore. By the late 1960s, sportfishing for giant bluefin tuna was starting in earnest off Nova Scotia, New England and Long Island. Like the Japanese at the time, North Americans had little regard for bluefin on the plate, usually discarding them after capture.

Bluefin sportfishing's rise, however, coincided with Japan's export boom. In the 1960s and '70s, Japanese planes stuffed with electronics unloaded in the U.S. and returned empty a huge waste of fuel. But when a Japanese entrepreneur realized he could buy New England and Canadian bluefin for a song, he started filling up all those empty cargo holds with tuna. Exposure to beef and other fatty meats during the U.S. occupation had already drawn the Japanese to appreciate bluefin's fatty belly (otoro, in sushi terms). The Atlantic bluefin, the biggest bluefin, became the most favored of all. This appreciation boomeranged stateside when Americans started to develop their own raw-fish habit in the late 1970."

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