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Tipping point

Certification of wild species moves forward, buyers await farmed-fish equivalent

By Lisa Duchene
January 01, 2008

Just a few years ago, as some of the industry's giants realized day-to-day purchasing must change to secure supply and a bright business future, sustainability demanded constant definition.

Now, the word is part of the industry's lexicon. Many buyers have announced new purchasing policies and are working quietly to shift their seafood supply to environmentally responsible sources. Bill Herzig, Darden Restaurants' senior VP of purchasing, explains the company's sustainable seafood effort as taking "one bite at a time" or "the journey, not the destination." Herzig is working to shift Darden's seafood purchasing to farms and fisheries that can continue to supply it well into the future without incurring environmental damage, while at the same time ensuring food-safety criteria and fair social conditions are met.

Simultaneously, Darden must secure millions of pounds of seafood annually for its 1,700 restaurants, including Red Lobster and Olive Garden, and inspire, not alienate, its business partners.

The task is daunting, which is why Herzig focuses on one step at a time. Many big-volume seafood buyers are walking a similar tightrope as they raise the sustainability profile of their seafood supply.

"When you're bringing about global change, you have to take it a bite at a time, and as people are ready for it," says Herzig. "It's driven to some degree by the nature and structure of the 
business. If you want to bring about effective change, you have to be part encourager, part educator, part coach and part mentor."

The steps high-volume seafood buyers like Darden have taken in the last few years are adding up to significant volume.

More than 30 percent of the U.S. retail market and 15 percent of the foodservice market has a sustainable-seafood purchasing policy in place and is buying Marine Stewardship Council-certified seafood, estimates Philip Fitzpatrick, who works with the seafood supply chain on chain-of-custody certification as the MSC's commercial director for the Americas.

About 10 percent of the global shrimp supply is produced in plants with a third-party certification as meeting industry best practices for environmental responsibility, food safety and social welfare under the Global Aquaculture Alliance's Best Aquaculture Practices program. The BAP program was introduced in 2003.

Some of the sustainability measures that U.S. seafood buyers have recently taken:

• Darden has partnered with the New England Aquarium, the GAA and the World Wildlife Fund. It stopped purchasing four or five problem species (declining to name them) for which there was a legal catch but much of the supply is illegal, unregulated and unreported.

All of the shrimp Darden purchases is processed in plants certified by the Aquaculture Certification Council of Kirkland, Wash., as meeting the GAA's BAP standards.

• All of the shrimp products Wal-Mart purchases are processed in GAA-program-certified plants. About one-third of the wild seafood Wal-Mart sells is MSC certified, says Peter Redmond, Wal-Mart's VP and 
divisional merchandise manager of deli and seafood.

"The bulk of our remaining products are presently in some stage of the [MSC] assessment or certification process," says Redmond.

• Since March 2006, the Compass Group, a high-volume foodservice provider based in Charlotte, N.C., has shifted 550,289 pounds of seafood, more than half of its goal of 1 million pounds, from threatened fisheries to sustainable sources using the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch list as a guide, says Jason Marriott, the company's director of seafood procurement.

The list categorizes seafood products as Best (green), Good (yellow) and Avoid (red), based on the environmental impact of the species' harvest or aquaculture practices.

Compass has eliminated eight species from the order guides available to its outlets: Atlantic cod, Chilean sea bass, Atlantic halibut, monkfish, orange roughy, imported swordfish, bluefin tuna and shark, including dogfish.

Alaska pollock and Pacific cod are the only pollock and cod products that Compass' operating units can purchase through Icelandic, its preferred national distributor. Compass promotes the two species in educational literature, training DVDs and promotions that include menu ideas and POS materials. Eighty percent of its finfish supply 
is now considered sustainable, says Marriott.

"To ensure compliance," says Marriott, "we have informed our local suppliers not to sell any fish from the 'Avoid' categories to our accounts."

• Bon Appétit Management Co. in Palo Alto, Calif., is a Compass-owned company that inspired its parent's seafood policy change. Bon Appétit, which operates 400 cafés nationwide and purchases 1 million pounds of seafood annually, only buys seafood categorized as Best and Good on the Monterey Bay list.

Over time, Bon Appétit's sustainable-seafood policy has only grown stricter.

"In 2002, sustainable seafood was a purchasing preference," says Katherine Kwon, a Bon Appétit spokeswoman.

"In 2004, it became non-negotiable. We believe that purchasing sustainable seafood is simply the right thing to do and we're in a good position to do something about it."

• Ahold USA, which operates 726 grocery stores under three divisions in the eastern United States - Giant-Carlisle, Giant-Landover and Stop & Shop - contracts with the New England Aquarium in Boston to receive science-based advice on the sources of its seafood 
supply. The program, first launched in 2001 as EcoSound and now called ChoiceCatch, is being re-evaluated.

"We have taken steps to reduce the frequency of ads on specific items of concern [like Atlantic cod and orange roughy] and/or the areas where fish is caught or raised, based on recommendations given by the New England Aquarium," says Tracy Taylor, senior buyer for seafood at Ahold USA. "We have also started to promote longline Pacific cod regularly at one of our chains."

• Wegmans Food Markets, the Northeast supermarket company with headquarters in Rochester, N.Y., in October announced farmed shrimp-purchasing standards to promote environmental progress in the shrimp-aquaculture industry in the Americas.

"Wegmans will only purchase farmed shrimp that is high quality, healthful and environmentally preferable," says the company.

The standards the retailer is following are based upon the Principles for Responsible Shrimp Farming developed by the Consortium on Shrimp Farming and the Environment, which includes the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Bank and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

In the last year or so, says Mike Sutton, VP of the Monterey Bay Aquarium and director for the Future of the Oceans, the sustainability announcements of major seafood buyers have reached a tipping point.

"Now the challenge is helping them live up to their commitments," says Sutton.

"The level of interest in the business community and the general consumer public is greater than any I've seen in the 20 years I've been doing this," says Tom Grasso, acting director of the fisheries program for the WWF in Washington, D.C.

Fulfilling the promise

Globally, there are now more than 25 MSC-certified fisheries and 30 fisheries in the final stages of certification. Another 20 are in the initial stages of assessment.

The volume of certified fisheries, says the MSC's Fitzpatrick, represents more than 4 million metric tons of seafood and 8 percent of the global wild catch. Cumulatively, the certified fisheries represent 42 percent of the global salmon supply, 38 percent of the global whitefish supply and 18 percent of the global spiny lobster supply.

In addition to the public 
announcements, many retailers are quietly shifting their purchasing to sustainable sources, says Fitzpatrick.

"More than a dozen fisheries have come forward as a result of a commitment Wal-Mart has made and other retailers have quietly made," he says. There is also interest from foodservice operators. Distributors that have chain-of-custody certification to handle MSC products include online retailer Fresh Direct in the New York City metro area, Poseidon Seafood in Charlotte, N.C., Santa Monica Seafood in Rancho Dominguez, Calif., Slade 
Gorton in Boston and The Plitt Co. 
in Chicago.

On the aquaculture side of the supply picture, GAA's plant certification earns the product one star on its wholesale package along with a certified BAP logo. Product from certified plants and farms earns two stars and totals 15,000 metric tons. A triple certification - plant, farm and hatchery - carries three stars and describes 60,000 metric tons of farmed shrimp on the global market. Standards for shrimp feed, representing the fourth potential star, are in development, as are standards for catfish, tilapia and pangasius. Once they are determined, Wal-Mart expects to adopt these new standards and require its suppliers of these farmed species to gain ACC accreditation.    

Darden and Wal-Mart's sustainable-seafood policies are driving a growing number of shrimp farms, processors and hatcheries, as well as wild fisheries, to seek certification.

Darden's goal for this year is to have 20 percent of the shrimp volume in its system come from farms that are BAP-certified. The company worked with its suppliers to set a realistic goal.

"Suppliers generally know that when we set a goal our job is to meet that goal. We don't set our goals lightly," says Herzig.

So far, Wal-Mart sells 22 MSC-certified seafood products. Its next target is that all wild items will be MSC-certified in the next two to four years and it is receiving encouraging support from its vendors that it will be able to meet the target, says Redmond.

"We're very encouraged by the number of wild species that have entered either full or pre-certification with the MSC and are happy with the progress of the initiative thus far," he says.

Hurdles on the horizon

One important chall e nge facing buyers who are focusing on sourcing sustainable seafood is a lack of consensus on aquaculture standards.

Demand for sustainable certification of farmed salmon remains high, says the Compass Group's Marriott. "Issues ranging from interpretation as to what constitutes sustainable fish farming to consensus as to what criteria need to be met for sustainability, to actually finding producers that farm in an appropriate manner, to finding sufficient volume to meet our consumption needs - all of these continue to be challenges as we move forward," says Marriott.

There are at least three sets of standards or platforms defining sustainable aquaculture. One is a result of international dialogues the WWF has held globally over the past two years with industry stake-holders. The other two farmed-seafood standards are the Principles for Responsible Shrimp 
Farming, developed by the 
Consortium on Shrimp Farming and the Environment (that Wegmans is adopting), and the GAA's BAP program.

Wal-Mart's Redmond also sees a need for agreement on aquaculture standards. "One of our priorities is to establish a set of [aquaculture] standards as quickly as possible, so we can begin to make a positive impact," says Redmond. "Once the WWF standards are released, Wal-Mart will review them and determine how best to move 
forward with implementing the requirements."

Sutton, of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, sees a need for an MSC equivalent in aquaculture to certify farming operations.

"Whether that's ACC or a new entity, that debate is underway," says Sutton. "Without a doubt, there is going to be an aquaculture certification initiative ramping up very rapidly. Wal-Mart is insisting on it, among others. We're going to see certified farmed fish on the market relatively quickly."

Doing so is part of meeting the volume needs of these trailblazing buyers, says Sutton.

Clearly, the next chapter of the sustainable seafood market trend will be determined by whether the industry and conservation community can build upon their partnerships and agree on the definition of sustainable aquaculture.

Contributing Editor Lisa Duchene writes about business and the environment from Bellefonte, Pa.

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