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Tuna Rides Crest of the Wave of Seafood Popularity

July 09, 1987|DANIEL P. PUZO | Times Staff Writer

The long-suffering seafood industry, having finally shaken decades of consumer ambivalence, is now enjoying its fifth consecutive year of record sales and consumption.

The growing interest, spurred by health concerns and renewed culinary emphasis, has meant that even species once dismissed as "trash" fish are now in demand.

But despite all the attention given to exotic and familiar varieties from regions as diverse as the South Pacific and Iceland, America's favorite remains the humble canned tuna, according to a study compiled by the National Fisheries Institute.

In fact, tuna accounted for 24% of the 3.5 billion pounds of imported and domestic seafood consumed in this country last year, the Washington-based trade association found. The figure translates into an annual consumption rate of 3.6 pounds per person--the equivalent of eight or more cans of the meaty fish.

Tuna's Dominance to Continue

Tuna's dominance of the market is not expected to wane in the immediate future, even though the varieties of fish available at seafood counters are expanding. The institute projects that the growing popularity of fresh tuna, primarily in the form of steaks, will help sustain sales.

The nation's second leading seafood commodity is shrimp, usage of which increased about 10% in 1986 from the previous year, despite higher prices. Per-capita consumption of the crustacean now exceeds 2.2 pounds annually. Although trailing tuna in terms of overall pounds sold, shrimp generated the most revenue of any seafood item because of its relatively steep price tag.

After tuna and shrimp, the most frequently used seafoods, by volume, are: cod, salmon, pollock, clams, flounder and oysters.

Pollock has only recently been added to the best-selling species list because it is the prime ingredient in surimi , the imitation shellfish mixtures that have received widespread consumer acceptance. The fish, found primarily in Alaskan waters, is also used increasingly by fast-food firms.

One cautionary note, however, has been sounded for the seafood industry. The often high per-pound prices are placing more seafood items out of the reach of many U.S. households. If the pricing problem continues, it could ultimately reduce sales.

Coastal Shellfish Alert--Not everything is well in the seafood world. State health officials have issued a warning that California mussels are again under a seasonal quarantine. The summer prohibition on eating any of the locally caught shellfish has been in effect every year since 1934.

During warm weather, several types of bivalves found along this state's coast are likely to contain dinoflagellates, one-cell organisms that can prove highly toxic. The problem, though, is acute in mussels, and recreational fishers are urged to refrain from consuming those which are pulled from local waters.

(The action does not affect commercial supplies, most of which are harvested from distant waters, or are monitored for the presence of contamination by both state and federal authorities.)

The Department of Health Services reports that the toxins, once ingested, can paralyze the diaphragm muscles, making it impossible to breathe. The potentially fatal condition is known as paralytic shellfish poisoning, the last outbreak of which occurred in 1980, when there were 98 cases and two reported deaths.

The condition occurs when shellfish consume the organisms during the summer. The substance can then be transferred to humans if the infected items are eaten.

The quarantine is restricted at this time to mussels, but can be expanded to clams, cockles, scallops and oysters if warranted. The warning is expected to be lifted by Oct. 31.

Dangerous Garnish--As food presentation at home becomes almost as ambitious as that found in restaurants, poison control experts warn that there is a limit to the flowers and plants that can be safely used as decorations on dinner plates. The UC Davis Medical School recently warned that the leaves from several vegetables are potentially harmful if ingested.

The center singles out tomato leaves as being particularly poisonous, but also says the non-edible parts of potatoes, rhubarb and eggplant pose similar threats.

Care should also be taken not to eat the pits from apricots, peaches, wild cherries or plums. The center also cautions against the seeds of apples and pears, which may also cause illness if consumed.

Sulfite Disclosure--Today marks the start of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's requirement calling on manufacturers to indicate whether sulfites are present in processed meat and poultry products. Companies must include a listing of the chemical on labels if the preservative is present at levels above 10 parts per million.

As many as 1 million Americans may be allergic to sulfiting agents, which can cause severe reactions, including death, in those susceptible.

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