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Global Feature: Gold mettle

Can London fulfill the sustainable seafood commitments it made for the 2012 Olympics?

By Jason Holland
June 05, 2012

When the London Organising Committee of the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) unveiled its London 2012 Food Vision in December 2009, it made the commitment that all fish served at official events would be “demonstrably sustainable.” It was the first pledge of this nature ever to be made by a major international sporting event and one that presented U.K. seafood suppliers with a billion-dollar conundrum: With an estimated 14 million meals projected to be served during the games across 40 locations, where was all the sustainable fish going to come from? 

At that time, officials hadn’t defined what was meant by “demonstrably sustainable” and seafood was just one food category on a list of many. Those suppliers that were looking to steal a march on their rivals only had a “Benchmark Standard” to go by that stated all fish must be sustainable according to the FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) or the Marine Conservation Society (MCS). 

Back in 2009, many felt the initial policy descriptions were too vague and open to misinterpretation. Fortunately, greater clarity and purchasing confidence came via Sustain — the alliance for better food and farming; along with Good Catch, which provides practical information on sustainable seafood for chefs, caterers and restaurateurs; and the MCS with its traffic light rating system, whereby “fish to eat” are rated 1 (light green) and 2 (pale green) and “fish to avoid” are rated 5 (red). 

Laky Zervudachi, sustainability director for fresh fish supplier Direct Seafoods, explains it’s now clear to everyone that the policy requires all wild fish supplied to the Games to be rated MCS 1 or 2 or alternatively MSC certified. There’s “a little more leeway and opportunity” with farmed fish in that species with an MCS 3 (yellow) rating can be used, but LOCOG has specified that it’s expecting best practices within that level, he says.

“In the case of farmed salmon, where a regular fish would pass muster, you can score points if you opt for fish with best practice or which are ‘Freedom Food.’ That’s what we have encouraged all our customers to do,” says Zervudachi, who confirms that all smoked salmon products supplied by Direct Seafoods will be Freedom Food-certified, which is the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ (RSPCA) farm assurance and food labeling scheme.

“Food Vision has definitely upped peoples’ antes. All the big contractors looking at the Olympics gave us their lists of the fish that they wanted to use during the Games and we then advised if it would be possible to source them within the Food Vision. It was really interesting working through these lists and then coming up with proposals to help them fit within the bigger picture,” he says.

Diversity  

The caterers’ lists have been presented with species provenance to LOCOG, which has vetted them with the help of Sustain and Good Catch ahead of any orders being placed with suppliers. And while the process has presented a few stumbling blocks in terms of non-compliant fisheries, sourcing a broad diversity of species hasn’t been the major headache that many had feared. Zervudachi says the only real problem has come with farmed sea bass and sea bream, which also have an MCS rating of 4. “Most of the caterers thought they could use these fish, but that isn’t the case. So we’re in the process of speaking with fishermen and organizing gurnard and local black bream as replacements.

“I think more people will be encouraged to try different things and be more open-minded as a result. Similarly, because brown crab is MCS 3, we are suggesting customers use underexploited spider crab for all their products. It’s such a fantastic product anyway, so it should be reaching wider audiences. Hopefully it will change peoples’ perceptions,” he says.

Even the phenomenal volumes of seafood needed for the Games, while unprecedented for a one-off U.K. event, seem well in hand, despite eleventh-hour revisions.

“One of the big caterers for the athletes and associated staff has revised its order, which was originally in the region of 90 metric tons. It has just upped that to 160 metric tons. And that’s just one of our clients,” says Zervudachi. 

Leaving a legacy 

There’s little doubt the 2012 Games will have an enormous impact on the United Kingdom. But what happens once the 9 million visitors and 24,000 athletes and team officials have left the country will be the greatest measure of the success of LOCOG’s Food Vision.

“At the very least, we are hoping to increase the awareness of the need to source sustainable seafood and the need of having a sustainably exploited marine environment,” says David Parker, MCS fisheries officer. “But we also want to generate more dialogue and debate about it.”

Jon Walker of Sustain hopes it will “set out a template for day-to-day practices.” And he says those organizations that were involved in the Food Vision process and that have continued to meet independently are delighted with the “positive reaction” to their next scheme — to make London the world’s first sustainable fish city, through the Sustainable Fish City campaign.

Sustainable Fish City was launched in January 2011 to transform the way fish is bought and sold in the capital by harnessing and coordinating the buying power of public and private-sector caterers. It wants London’s shops, fish suppliers, restaurants, caterers, schools, colleges and tourist attractions to follow LOCOG’s lead and only serve or supply sustainable fish.

This year, Sustainable Fish City secured the support of Raymond Blanc, one of the country’s most respected Michelin-starred chefs. Blanc has already helped Sustain, MCS, MSC and SeaWeb’s Seafood Choices convene a “Sustainable Fish Forum” for chefs, caterers and restaurateurs, where he pressed the value of the campaign and told delegates that the modern-day chef is “not only a craftsman, he also needs to be a teacher, a transmitter of values and an expert in sustainability issues.

“All of us now recognize that sustainability is core to our business reputation; we are also demonstrating the commercial viability of operating responsibly,” says Blanc.

Walker remarks that the campaign has already achieved quite a lot in a short space of time, like getting the U.K. government to adopt a new mandatory policy of using only sustainable fish in its catering for central government. 

A number of businesses have also adopted the Sustainable Fish City pledge. Commercial ventures are divided up into two categories so that small businesses get one version of the pledge and large businesses get another. The only difference being that the larger companies must commit to getting MSC Chain of Custody certification. 

Walker also reveals the campaign has ambitions outside of London and beyond British shores, possibly to the United States.

Contributing Editor Jason Holland lives in London

June 2012 - SeaFood Business 

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