October 20, 2010

Soup to Nuts: Sea(food) change
toward sustainability

To increasing numbers of consumers, sustainability matters, and local grocers are following their lead with new programs that trace a fish's often-winding path from source to shelf.

By Meredith Goad mgoad@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Imagine picking up a can of fish chowder at your local grocery store and tracing the fish that's in it back to where it was caught – and not only to where it was caught, but how it was caught.

click image to enlarge

Whole Foods Market in Portland has launched a seafood program with color-coded signs indicating a fish’s level of sustainability. Green, or “best choice” ratings, means a species is relatively abundant and caught in environmentally-friendly ways. A yellow rating means there are some concerns with a fish’s status or catch methods. Red means “avoid” because the species is suffering from overfishing, or the methods used to catch it are harmful to other marine life or habitats. Whole Foods has already stopped selling many red-rated species.

Photos by John Ewing/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

At Whole Foods Market in Portland, a green, or “best choice” ratings, means a species is relatively abundant and caught in environmentally-friendly ways. A yellow rating means there are some concerns with a fish’s status or catch methods. Red means “avoid” because the species is suffering from overfishing, or the methods used to catch it are harmful to other marine life or habitats. Whole Foods has already stopped selling many red-rated species.

Additional Photos Below

Now multiply that by a few thousand products, and you have some idea of the monumental task facing George Parmenter, corporate responsibility manager for Hannaford.

Hannaford is reviewing all of the fresh, frozen and canned seafood it buys to ensure it comes from well-managed fisheries that will not deplete fish stocks over time. Its Sustainable Seafood Sourcing Policy, developed with the help of scientists at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute in Portland, sets a March 2011 deadline for Hannaford's suppliers to switch to only sustainable seafood sources.

Over at Whole Foods Market, customers approaching the fresh fish case will now notice green, yellow and red signs that indicate just how abundant that Icelandic cod is that they're about to buy, and how environmentally friendly the fishing methods are that were used to catch it.

As consumers become more savvy about sustainability issues and curious about where their food comes from, grocery stores are taking notice and offering more information their customers can use to make smart choices about what they buy. In some cases, consumers are demanding more environmental accountability, and stores are coming under pressure to comply.

"There are organizations that are publicly embarrassing companies that are selling a lot of red-listed species," said Alan Duckworth, a research scientist at Blue Ocean Institute in Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y., the organization that developed the ranking method being used by Portland's Whole Foods. "And customers are becoming more clued in that there are only so many fish in the ocean, and the choices they make can actually improve the health of the ocean."

Parmenter said Hannaford is moving to a sustainable seafood-only program "because it was one of those issues where we think we need to be out ahead of the customers."

"In dealing with our suppliers and being in touch with stakeholders and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and other interested parties, it was clear that there was a big issue here," Parmenter said. "We recognized that for us to be in the business of continuing to sell seafood that we need to do something to ensure that there will be seafood available to be sold in the future."

Hannaford started to develop its policy with the help of GMRI about two years ago. The company has a deadline of March 2011 for sourcing only sustainable seafood products.

Right now, the company is working through its list of products and contacting suppliers to make them aware of the policy and what Hannaford needs from them. Vendors are sending information back, and that information is being vetted by the scientists at GMRI.

Parmenter said it's a complicated process because the store doesn't necessarily keep track of the food it sells based on whether or not it has seafood in it. And in some cases there are multiple variations of a seafood product on their shelves – for example, frozen fish may come battered, coated in panko bread crumbs, plain, and so on.

LAYERS UPON LAYERS

"It's been a bit of a data mining exercise figuring out what are those products, who supplies them to us, and then asking them to provide us information based on their sources," Parmenter said. "In some cases, the supply can be multiple layers deep. We buy a processed product – say, battered shrimp in the frozen section – and we need to go back to perhaps a shrimp wholesaler who's getting it from someone else, who might be getting it from the actual person who's taking it out of the ocean or out of a farm. It's a lot more complicated than I thought it would be, that's for sure."

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Whole Foods labels on wild-caught bay scallops and white shrimp indicate that they were harvested in Mexico and the USA, respectively, that they were previously frozen, and bear a yellow designation, which suggests some concerns with a fish s status or catch methods.

  


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