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Consumer Buying Guides: Guiding lights

Seafood advice is at consumers' fingertips

Buying guides aim to help consumers make responsible
By James Wright
November 01, 2008

Consumers seeking advice in making sustainable seafood purchasing decisions have many resources at their disposal - all it takes is a quick check in their wallet or a simple text message. The only problem is, there are enough buying guides out there to make your head spin and the advice isn't exactly the same. Another difficult decision, then, becomes which source to listen to. But as you can see below, the various consumer seafood guides all collaborate with each other in making their determinations.

The most widely recognized consumer-based seafood buying guide is Seafood Watch, a program the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, Calif., launched in 1999. The MBA has slotted U.S. consumers' favorite seafood species into three categories: Best Choices, Good Alternatives and Avoid. Their advice is based on the overall health of wild species' populations and the methods of harvest or the aquaculture industry's track record of environmental stewardship.

While other readily available consumer guides may provide conflicting information, most follow a similar, easy-to-follow format on a convenient, pocket-sized card; some also use a digital format aimed at on-the-go PDA users.

According to Seafood Watch, Best Choices species are "abundant, well-managed and caught or farmed in environmentally friendly ways," while Good Alternatives have "concerns with how they're caught or farmed - or with the health of their habitat due to other human impacts." Species that fall under the Avoid category are "caught or farmed in ways that harm other marine life or the environment."

One complicating factor with the various guides concerns fishing methods and origins. Certain species, as a result, may appear in more than one category. For example, Environmental Defense Fund's Pocket Seafood Selector lists U.S. king crab an "OK Choice" while imported king crab is a "Worst Choice." Tilapia from Latin America gets the OK while tilapia from Asia does not. Other recommendation variances are based on fishing methods, such as longlines versus hook-and-line.

And, while the three main guides agree by advising to avoid Atlantic cod, Chilean sea bass, sharks and farmed salmon, only Environmental Defense says to avoid buying haddock from trawl fisheries. The species does not appear on any of the other lists.

Regardless of congruity, the guides are resonating with consumers, who use them while shopping at their favorite grocery store or when they sit down to eat at a restaurant. Jeremy Anderson, director of operations for Consolidated Restaurants in Seattle, which operates Elliott's Oyster House, says diners are increasingly concerned about sustainability.

"Some people come straight from the aquarium, holding their cards as they order," says Anderson.

Bon Appetit Management Co., which operates about 400 cafés in corporate offices, universities and other specialty venues, ships Seafood Watch cards to all of its restaurants twice a year so they have up-to-date handouts.

Helene York, director of the Bon Appétit Management Co. Foundation in Palo Alto, Calif., says this is done for two reasons.

"One is to [foster] conversations with our chefs about ocean health and guidelines about our seafood procurement," says York. "The other reason is a lot of our guests buy seafood at supermarkets outside of our business. We want them to have that information available to them so they can feel confident that the seafood they [buy elsewhere] follows MBA guidelines."

Even staunch supporters of seafood buying guides admit convenient information is only a starting point. True growth of sustainability, says York, will have to come from the seafood industry itself.

"The real change is going to come from supplier education and from companies making commitments to purchase sustainable seafood. I don't think we should rest more responsibility on consumers than we already have."


Assistant Editor James Wright can be 
e-mailed at jwright@divcom.com


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