Monday, Nov. 6, 2006 | This Monday morning meeting on the fifth floor of a building in a Mira Mesa office park has most of the elements of a standard corporate briefing. Executives wear brown, tassled, leather loafers and those with ties around their necks needle the ones sporting polos and khakis. A couple brag about the lunch meetings they’re planning. Jargon and acronyms pepper the conversation. And refreshments are served right on time, 9:00 a.m.

But this meeting is in the office kitchen, not a boardroom, and the table in the middle is made of stainless steel, not wood. Instead of drinking coffee and munching on scones from the Starbucks in the building’s lobby, these executives clutch plastic forks and dig in to a mound of food on a big stainless steel in the company kitchen. A mound of pinkish brown, flaky, moist seafood, that is – more than 65 cans worth of tuna and salmon.

At the Chicken of the Sea office, it’s never too early for tuna.

Twenty minutes earlier, three quality testers don personalized white lab coats and clear plastic gloves. They hustle to open all of the cans. The meeting, called a cutting, is a quality taste/smell/look test. It’s the last net to catch any problems in the shipments from the overseas canneries before the product hits the shelves.

Thrusting the cans into an electric opener, the testers – Erika Jones, Vahan Serpekian and Isabel Romero – stretch their arms as far as possible to avoid being splashed by the spewing tuna juice. They line the cans up on the shiny table and check the can codes. Yellow Post-Its with codes like “SAMPAC” and “SONGKLA,” “TUM” and “TUF” mark which cans came from which cannery.

The table has bumpers – like the lip on an infant’s high chair to keep Cheerios and pureed apricots from sliding off – and a hole at the end for a garbage bag to collect broth and empty cans. As the first executives trickle in for the meeting, Jones and Romero start turning the cans over. The tapping of the cans against the table as each one is poured out punctuate the conversation with a metallic rhythm.

I wince as I realize my nostrils have become so used to this tuna smell, even in 20 minutes, that I can barely notice it anymore, except for a whiff or two as more cans are opened. One executive jokes that tuna is the breakfast of champions, and another tries to keep a straight face while he tells me they usually pour the juice into a shot glass for each person before starting the meeting. A third says he’ll pack me a baggy of the fish to take home – “Just keep it in your trunk ’til about 7:00 p.m.,” he says, “and it’ll be fine.”

Soon, the testing starts. Serpekian, the white-haired supervisor of the quality assurance team, makes notes on his clipboard while Jones and Romero check the mounds of fish. With utensils they sort through each little stack. They’re evaluating the product for cleaning defects, like any stowaway bones or scales, for salt levels, for broth purity, and for the product’s compliance with Food and Drug Administration regulations for length, width and size – of the “chunks” in “chunk light” tuna, for example.

The executives grab forks and dig in, tasting bites from all of the different canneries, making comments about moisture levels and taste. Romero sets her knife down and cups a couple of cans worth of tuna in her hands, massaging it with her thumbs and bringing it close to her face to take a whiff.

Jones, the youngest member of the team, says the smell test is easy because tuna’s something that’s “a part of everyone’s life.”

“You know what it’s supposed to smell like,” she says. “You know if there’s something off there.”

For San Diego, tuna has a history of being more than just the can in the pantry used for last-minute noodle casseroles. The tuna industry was a major player in the San Diego economy for several decades. Headquarters and canneries for several of the nation’s major tuna companies came here soon after the first albacore cannery opened in 1911. Tens of thousands of people found employment in the industry.

Restrictions on boats’ travel during World War II and a flood of cheap, imported tuna from Japan and other Asian countries in the 1950s put pressure on the industry, pitting the American Tunaboat Association against the Cannery Worker and Fisherman’s Union to drive prices down. But the industry had more problems to face. Latin American countries imposed controls on how much could be caught in their waters, and a major source of bait was thus limited. Finally, the price of labor made it impossible for companies to sustain their payrolls, and canneries closed in San Diego, one by one, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, wreaking imbalance in the local economy, and forcing many fishermen out of the region.

“Lots of people were affected,” says Serpekian, a 38-year veteran of the tuna industry. “I think office people found other jobs, but the boat owners and the fishermen, many of them had homes in Point Loma, you know, and they lost their homes.”

The face of the tuna industry in San Diego today less resembles a weathered fisherman with a knit cap and a week’s worth of stubble or a masked cannery worker whose hands have been ravaged by fish scales than it does a savvy international businessperson using a Palm Pilot to manage operations and canneries in several countries. Bumble Bee and Chicken of the Sea, two of the country’s major canned tuna providers, now have corporate headquarters in San Diego. But the shift to the corporate end hasn’t deterred some “lifers” – many of the 100 or so employees at the Chicken of the Sea office have been with the company or in the industry for more than 30 years, the executives tell me.

Serpekian wears a blue striped shirt and a yellow tie under his lab coat. He peers through brown-rimmed, slightly tinted glasses as he makes notes on a clipboard and speaks softly, his accent a reminder of his Jordanian childhood.

Serpekian started working as a chemist at Westgate California Foods, an early big player in the San Diego tuna world, while he was still a student at San Diego State University in the early 1970s. He tested the fish for its nutritional makeup – analyzing proteins and other elements – and his duties grew to include wastewater testing. When Bumble Bee bought Westgate after Serpekian had been there for 12 years, he was given some traveling assignments to other tuna towns in such places as Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Hawaii. There he’d inspect the company’s product and share techniques for testing. He was with Bumble Bee – “I used to work for the competition,” he admits wryly – for 17 years before it was sold to an overseas company and he moved to Chicken of the Sea, where he’s been since 1997.

The youngest member of the team Serpekian supervises is Erika Jones, a woman in her young twenties who graduated from SDSU in December with a degree in nutrition and dietetics. Her interest in food quality and nutrition led to her decision to become a food tester, and she says tuna testing, which she’s been doing for seven months, is a perfect match. She lists the features of tuna that are music to a nutritionist’s ears: wild-caught, full of heart-healthy omega-3s, high in protein, low in saturated fat, and the list goes on.

“That’s how Vahan has made it so long,” one of the executives laughs when Jones lists the health benefits.

And her passion for tuna gets pretty evangelistic, at times.

“You need to make this a part of your life if at all possible,” she says. “I think people think, ‘It’s in a can.’ You remember your grandparents opening a can. We’re reinventing the image. It can be cutting edge.”

On Jones’ first day on the job, she opened packages of oysters from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Since then, one of her biggest projects has been the development of tuna products that “don’t taste like fish.” She calls the new line “the cups” – they’re snack-sized cups filled with flavored and marinated tuna or salmon that Jones says will appeal to people who want the benefits of eating fish without the fish flavor.

Fitting into that category are Jones’ two teenaged sisters. “They kind of like fish,” she says. “But the cups are big ’cause they don’t really like the fishy taste.” And Jones has spread the news about the new product to more than just her family.

“Anyone I meet, they know about the cups,” she says. It’s hard to miss Jones’ excitement when she talks about her role.

“It’s brand new for the industry,” she says. “It’s pretty neat to add something when the industry’s been around forever.”

She says there’s not much that comes out of the blue for quality controllers at a tuna company. “The job is very dynamic,” she says. “These are living organisms, but there’s some consistency with all this variation. There’s only so many things people haven’t seen before.”

Jones comes to the industry at a time when it’s reinventing itself with sleek packaging and new products targeted to consumers who wouldn’t otherwise eat fish. You might say Serpekian represents the school of people who’ve laid a foundation for innovation from people like Jones. A tuna company, manufacturing a product that doesn’t taste like fish?

Serpekian tells a story about the discovery of mercury levels in tuna while he was working for Westgate. The industry recoiled from federal regulations that kept tuna off the shelves until it could be tested. He heard about a company developing an instrument that could test for mercury, but the instrument wasn’t available for sale yet. He flew to Chicago and grabbed the first instrument off the assembly line, flew back and started testing Westgate’s tuna. Soon product testers from the other tuna companies were coming to him to see how to test for mercury, and Westgate was one of the first to get its product back out on the market. The FDA has recently issued warnings to pregnant women and children about eating no more than six ounces of albacore tuna a week.

When Serpekian describes his efforts to make sure the product is safe, his eyes light up.

“We were one of the first,” he says.

He says the advent of technology and the ability to communicate with the international canneries via telephone and e-mail has drastically changed the way he does his job. “You could see things with your own eyes,” he says of the days he spent among the fish cleaners. “Now, we have to hear them.”

Except for rare moments, you won’t hear Serpekian – or Jones, for that matter – make a disparaging remark about their jobs, especially not about the tuna itself. Jones, who admits the tuna smell gets “stuck” in her hair and clothes, says she’s “had her share of tuna at 6:30 in the morning,” but can’t imagine leaving the company, at least not anytime soon.

But after the cutting, when we walk past a candy dish, Serpekian grabs a few Tootsie Rolls and offers me one.

“When you eat tuna, you kind of smell bad,” he says. “That’s the only negative part.”

Please contact Kelly Bennett directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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