(Reuters) - When the steel industry goes to Washington, it usually talks about trade, tariffs and taxes. But there is also the small matter of fruit cocktail.
After years of declining food can shipments, steelmakers and packaging producers are in the midst of an ambitious push to rebrand canned goods as convenient health food. They're even trying to rename the pantry, to "cantry."
These industry groups have been wooing Americans with recipes for canned pineapple chicken salad and chocolate cake with peaches and beets. But they have also been commissioning nutrition research and lobbying to make canned goods a bigger part of government programs.
"One of the biggest obstacles has been the belief that canned food is not nutritious," said Rich Tavoletti, executive director of the Canned Food Alliance. "We've had to educate consumers."
The alliance, a consortium affiliated with the American Iron and Steel Institute that includes steel producers and can makers, is getting results: A pilot program tucked into the five-year farm bill passed by Congress in February will soon let canned food like fruit salad into the federal government's school snack program, to the dismay of some health advocates.
Steelmakers have good reason to care about Americans' eating habits. Most food cans are made of steel, though aluminum has won much of the beverage can market. About 4 percent of U.S. steel shipments in 2013 were for the container market, which is dominated by food cans but also includes some aerosol cans, according to the American Iron and Steel Institute.
U.S. Steel Corp (X.N) is a major supplier, and last year 8 percent of its shipments went to the container market. Shipments have edged lower over the last five years.
Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said canned fruit and vegetables can be convenient, affordable and a good option in addition to fresh produce, even though they often contain extra sugar or salt.
But she called the farm bill pilot "a benefit to the canned food industry, not to the benefit of children," noting that the snack program is meant to be educational, introducing children to more fresh produce. She said the public-health community had been working with the fresh produce industry to oppose the pilot.
"It's something we've been fighting against for years, and they were finally able to get it in the farm bill," Wootan said.
The Canned Food Alliance also sees an opportunity to educate children, about canned food. Tavoletti said broadening the snack program could make it possible for schools to serve local produce even when it is out of season, and cut costs.
The group is not stopping with snacks. It is also trying to stamp out state-level rules that, in some places, restrict canned bean and produce purchases by the low-income families who receive Women, Infants and Children (WIC) food benefits. With 53 percent of U.S.-born infants covered, WIC users are a big market.
The latest data from Can Manufacturers shows that food can shipments in the United States were flat in 2012, and down 14 percent from a decade earlier. Canned food is up against a wide variety of fresh and frozen options, and steel is facing increasing competition from other kinds of packaging, like bags for coffee.
Enter Cans Get You Cooking, a marketing campaign from the Can Manufacturers Institute, another association of can makers and their suppliers. The campaign is funded by packaging suppliers Silgan Holdings Inc (SLGN.O), Crown Holdings Inc (CCK.N) and Ball Corp (BLL.N). Can Manufacturers' 30-odd members also include steelmakers ArcelorMittal USA ISPA.SA and U.S. Steel.
Earlier this year it sponsored a television special with Cooking Channel personality Kelsey Nixon. On the campaign's Facebook group, visitors weigh in on the "Cantry Item of the Week" ("my favorite carrots") and guess the contents of cans with blank labels.
Sherrie Rosenblatt, vice president for marketing and communications at Can Manufacturers, wants to see the word "cantry," which was crafted by a public-relations firm, enter the lexicon just like the verb "google."
"I don't even use the word 'pantry' anymore, and I forget that it's a word that not everybody knows yet," she said. "We hope it becomes a part of the nomenclature of the American public."
Editing by Jeffrey Hodgson and Douglas Royalty