Monday, March 12, 2012

International Seafood Show: Consumers Purchasing Sustainable Seafood

....shellfish are the prime cause of the decline of morals and the adaptation of an extravagant lifestyle. Indeed of the whole realm of Nature the sea is in many ways the most harmful to the stomach, with its great variety of dishes and tasty fish.
--Pliny the Elder 

Does the average consumer seek out sustainable seafood? Or are there other factors that matter more to them rather than sustainability? If they are concerned, then where are they likely to find and purchase that seafood? Will they go to a fish market or specialty grocery store? How do we get consumers to care more about purchasing sustainable seafood?

Peter Koufopoulos, the Acting Director of the Division of Seafood Safety at the FDA, discussed several aspects of consumer seafood purchasing during a conference on Japanese seafood. The average consumer spends about $37.62 for a basket of groceries, which rises to $61.58 when meat is added, or $76.40 when seafood is added. Seafood is apparently one of the most expensive items for consumers, and when retail prices rise, on all items and not just seafood, it seems that consumers will often purchase even less seafood.

Seafood is an item particularly hard hit when general grocery prices increase. There are a few seafood exceptions, such as yellowfin tuna, or during specific holidays, like squid and scallops purchases which rise during the Christmas period. But average consumers seem to view seafood more as a luxury, easy to stop buying when grocery prices increase. For these consumers, sustainability is a much less important factor than price. It is more a small contingent of sustainability adherents willing to pay higher prices for sustainable seafood.

But, in my discussion with Kerry Coughlin of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), it seemed like the situation may not be as gloomy as it seems. The MSC, an independent, non-profit organization, essentially certifies fisheries as sustainable and their goal is to make a consumer's purchasing decision easy. All a consumer needs to do is to see the blue MSC and then they can be assured they are buying sustainable seafood. This helps consumers avoid all the complexities of sustainability. The MSC, which currently certifies 139 fisheries and are assessing another 135, seeks to be transparent and use the best science available in their evaluations.

It is the MSC's association with a number of big box retailers that may be offering affordable, sustainable seafood to a far greater percentage of consumers. One of their first customers, in 2006, was Walmart, which started to sell some MSC certified seafood and then set a benchmark of 2011 to be as close to 100% sustainable as possible. They reached this benchmark on time, and now are phasing out the remaining, tiny percentage so that they will soon sell only sustainable seafood. Target and Kroger both plan to sell only sustainable seafood by 2015. Costco, Shaws, and other big box stores and chain grocery stores are now selling MSC certified seafood and plan to add more such products.

BJ’s Wholesale Club, Inc.has made a commitment to try to sell only sustainable seafood by 2014, and has partnered with MSCSustainable Fisheries Partnership, and the Global Aquaculture Alliance. This will affect both their wild caught and farmed fish products, and include everything from fresh fish to frozen products like fish sticks. Scott Williams, Manager of Product Development and Quality Assurance for BJ’s, stated “Our goal is to continue to provide safe, quality seafood at an excellent value for years to come and without compromise. As a large volume buyer of seafood, it is BJ’s responsibility to help protect the oceans and waterways and have a minimal impact on the long-term health of our ecosystems.”

When you consider the vastness of the business conducted by these big box retailers, the sheer magnitude of the groceries they sell, it seems clear that they can and will great amounts of seafood. And as their prices will be much lower than other grocery stores, consumers are more likely to buy the seafood. As they purchase certified, sustainable seafood, they will be supporting a worthy endeavor and hopefully become converts. The consumers who wouldn't buy sustainable seafood because of its high price at a specialty grocery store, would be more likely to buy it, at a good price, at Walmart or BJ's. Kerry even mentioned that when one of the big box stores has sales on sustainable seafood, purchases skyrocket.

The MSC is still a relatively small organization, and they feel they are lagging a bit in addressing food services. Their original chain of custody procedures were not really designed for restaurants, but they are finding ways to adapt. They are attempting to do more business with food services and that may become an important element in their future. Already, all McDonald's restaurants in Europe sell 100% MSC certified seafood and even Mcdonald's in Russia are selling MSC certified seafood. It is U.S. locations that are still lagging in this respect. A few other small chain restaurants also are currently using MSC certified products.

In addition, the MSC is considering a new online certification system for restaurants, where they would use an independent auditor to evaluate and verify the restaurant's compliance. This would make it much easier to certify restaurants and that ease could attract more restaurants to consider the option. Expanding their business to large chain restaurants would be another great way to spread a love for sustainable seafood, as well as provide significant markets for their certified fisheries. If the field becomes more lucrative, that could be an incentive for other fisheries to seek sustainability certification. This could ultimately lead to making sustainable seafood more affordable for all.

It is important that consumers understand that a rigorous scientific process is in place to evaluate MSC certified fisheries, that teams of experts carefully assess the compliance of these fisheries. These fisheries are scored on a variety of factors, and must earn certain minimum scores before acquiring certification. In addition, the scores get aggregated and that total must also meet a certain minimum. As I have often said, the key for consumers is trust. If they come to trust the MSC blue label, then they will be far more likely to purchase their seafood at the big box retailers and chain restaurants. That could lead to a far greater awareness of seafood sustainability for all.


Anonymous said...

Being from Boston, I'm somewhat surprised you didn't mention anything about New England Aquarium's efforts in sustainable seafood. NEAq's conservation dept has been heavily involved in environmentally-responsible fisheries and aquaculture for 10+ years and has formal partnerships with Gorton's, Darden Resturants (Red Lobster), and Stop-n-Shop(among others). NEAq also engages with Boston-area chefs on many aspects related to sustainable seafood.

Richard Auffrey said...

Hello, my posts are not intended to be comprehensive, but more geared to my recent activity at the Seafood Show. As the show is so huge, I previously indicated no person could cover its entirety.

Unknown said...

This is exactly what I was looking for! I need to talk to some purchasing agents internationally to check a few options out. What kind of things should you know when buying seafood internationally?