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Going Green: Retailers laud FMI policy

Retail industry trade group plans sustainable seafood education push

April 2009 - Going Green
By Lisa Duchene
April 01, 2009

Some sustainability policies have the ability to change the world while others sit like old books on shelves, gathering dust.

The first sign that the Food Marketing Institute's new sustainable seafood policy, announced in late January, could result in real change came in early February. This was when the 22 executives on FMI's sustainable seafood task force gathered in San Diego for the Seafood Choices Alliance Seafood Summit.

To Ned Daly, the SCA's new North American director, the presence of those retailers - representing seven of the U.S. grocery industry's Top 10 - was pivotal.

"All indications are that this [policy] is not window dressing," says Daly. "FMI and their members are taking this very seriously and they're not trying to stall or drag their heels. They're trying to address very difficult issues in very difficult economic times."

FMI represents food wholesalers and U.S. supermarket companies operating 26,000 grocery stores with a combined sales volume of $680 billion, about three-quarters of U.S. grocery store sales.

The new sustainable seafood policy is a "call to action," says Jeanne von Zastrow, FMI's senior director of member services, because it's received the focus of the FMI board, made up of 75 to 80 companies and as such is elevated in priority.

FMI is taking a leadership role to ensure seafood products will be available in the future for grocery stores. Retailers and the supply chain recognize that fisheries are struggling, says von Zastrow.

"Our members approached us, recognizing this is an issue. Our fisheries are under stress and if we don't make some corrective action as an industry we'll jeopardize our customers' ability to have good, healthy products in their diets," she says.

About half the world's fisheries are considered fully exploited and 25 percent are experiencing severe overfishing, according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization. Scientists have reached general consensus that the biomass of top marine predators is 10 percent of what it was 50 years ago, according to a scientific update published in October 2008 in the journal Nature . Bluefin tuna, Atlantic cod and swordfish in the Atlantic and Indian oceans could be extinct within decades, says the update.

FMI's policy grew out of the organization's overall effort on sustainability, an issue increasingly on the minds of grocers. In its annual state-of-the-industry report released last May, FMI reported 41.3 percent of retailers had a corporate sustainability program and 14.7 percent planned to begin one.

At the San Diego session, FMI's seafood task force prioritized 
four action items:

• Develop a sustainable seafood advisory council;

• Develop a sustainable seafood 101 tool kit to help educate store management and store-
level employees;

• Develop common defini-tions and tools around sustainable seafood;

• Develop an initiative to consider the most sustainable and productive ways to deal with seafood shrink, such as organic composting.

"As a result of the work our group is doing, more retailers are taking action to address seafood sustainability," says Tracy Taylor, senior seafood buyer at Ahold USA, owner of the Stop & Shop, Giant Carlisle and Giant Landover supermarket chains, and chairperson of FMI's sustainable seafood working group. Ahold, a retail pioneer in sustainable seafood purchasing efforts, has partnered with the New England Aquarium on the issue since 2000.

Education among grocers tops the group's to-do list, says Taylor. "As we become more educated and talk about it more, our consumers will start becoming more educated about it."

There are few unexplored seafood sources around the globe. Seafood buyers should look beyond shifting supply sources and instead work with existing sources to improve practices so they are environmentally sound for the long run, says Taylor.

Her advice to retailers is to learn about the products you sell, first generally about wild fisheries and aquaculture, then explore various certifications. Learn about the best, most environmentally sound practices and how you can possibly push suppliers and producers to adopt them, she says.

That's the general strategy Ahold USA and Wegmans have taken on the issue of farmed salmon and shrimp. These two popular, top-selling products, widely available at a relatively competitive price point and appearing on the "red lists" of many conservation groups, illustrate the sustainability challenge facing retailers.

Seafood Choices Alliance and FMI point to Wegmans' and Ahold's policies as success stories, proving retailers can take a stand on sustainable seafood.

Wegmans worked with Environmental Defense Fund of New York to develop purchasing standards that require farmed shrimp producers to treat their waste water, reduce wild fish in shrimp feed, stop use of antibiotics and other chemicals and avoid damaging sensitive habitats. Suppliers are required to meet aggressive performance targets, and that's the key to the partnership, says Teresa Ish, project manager at Environmental Defense.

"We let the people who know about farming, the shrimp farmers themselves, innovate to meet the performance metrics," says Ish. "This was an opportunity to prove that shrimp can be farmed in a way that has minimal impact on the environment and is still economically feasible to produce."

In State College, Pa., Wegmans sells uncooked P&D 41-50 Thai shrimp for $7.99 per pound and easy-peel 31-35 count Belize shrimp for $35.99 for a 5-pound bag.

SCA's Ned Daly hopes FMI's policy will lead to similar policies from about half the companies on its sustainable seafood task force. The New England Aquarium, Ahold's partner, has seen increased interest from retailers and other players in the supply chain, says Heather Tausig, the aquarium's director of conservation.

"The value of the industry moving forward together on it helps make sure nobody is putting themselves at a competitive disadvantage to doing the right thing. That's significant value," says Daly.


Contributing Editor Lisa Duchene lives in Bellefonte, Pa.


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