Tracking fish from the sea to the shelf

Sensemaking / Tracking fish from the sea to the shelf

With four-fifths of global fisheries now fully stretched, Delhaize Group supermarkets in the US are setting out to ensure the sustainability of all their seafood products.

By Jon Turney / 19 Nov 2012

With four-fifths of global fisheries now fully stretched, Delhaize Group supermarkets in the US are setting out to ensure the sustainability of all their seafood products.

When the Delhaize Group supermarkets in the US – including Hannaford, Food Lion, Sweetbay, Bottom Dollar Food, Harvey’s and Reids – set out to track all their seafood products back to source, they really did not know what they were taking on.

But three years later they can say that all 2,500 seafood items, be they fresh, frozen or canned, in their stores are sustainable.

This policy puts them ahead of any other major chain. It ensures that all the fisheries supplying them meet management standards developed in collaboration with the independent Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI) in Portland, Maine. Farm-raised seafood is certified and reviewed to ensure that production does not harm communities, workers, the environment or human health.

Deciding on the goal was easy, according to George Parmenter, Sustainability Manager at Hannaford. In a world where demand is rising while the UN estimates that four fifths of global fisheries are already either overfished or at full stretch, they did not want to be “the retailer that sells the last fish”.

Achieving blanket coverage was harder. “Just asking the question, ‘What products do we sell containing fish as the primary ingredient?’ was a much more complicated business than we appreciated”, says Parmenter. There are fish products sitting on the canned goods shelves and among the frozen foods, but some only show up when you review the list of ingredients. On the other hand, keyword searches highlight items which turn out not to contain any fish. In a country where market-leading seafood products are branded as “Chicken of the Sea”, you have to look, once, twice, maybe three times to find all the fish.

Then came the lengthy business of tracing origins and talking to suppliers. Encouragingly, Jennifer Levin, Sustainable Seafood Program Manager at GMRI, finds that “companies are really investing in traceability technologies” – whether paper or electronics-based.

Tuna, for instance, may now carry information on the vessel which hauled them out as they pass through many hands from boat to cannery, most often in the form of a barcode which is transferred to each new container. In the US, the vessel of origin is even likely to be certified nowadays by an official onboard observer.

For Parmenter, getting the right assurances about fisheries’ policy involved a big effort educating suppliers. “We had a lot of difficulty explaining ourselves. They tended to say, ‘Tell me what I can sell you!’ They wanted a list of banned species.”

That would do little to drive change, though. Instead, the US-based Delhaize Group supermarkets put the onus on the supplier to document fishery management. They were required to measure biomass levels in the fishery, document the action to be taken if they fall to a danger point, and say how it is enforced. “Then you have a well-managed fishery”, says Parmenter.

Resistance to this standard means tough decisions. “Removing products from the shelves, that’s a difficult decision to make if you are in the business of selling things”, he acknowledges. Still, around fifty lines have disappeared from the stores, including some brands of canned shrimp and most octopus. Some suppliers of fresh fish such as red snapper have also had to find other customers.

The better alternative is for the fishery to develop a new plan. For Levin, “the most exciting parts of the work were the fishery improvement projects prompted by this customer’s requirements”. Parmenter cites improvements in management of crab and tuna fisheries as notable examples.

Hannaford is now using in-store information and the web to educate its customers about the benefits of the new policy, which it announced in May, and the other supermarkets will follow. The initial response suggests they are more interested in where their fish comes from than in sustainability, but it’s early days.

The policy will soon be extended to other US supermarkets owned by Belgian parent company, Delhaize Group – 1,548 in all. The Group’s supermarkets in Belgium and Greece are also moving to 100% sustainable seafood.

Elsewhere, supermarkets are making headway with sustainable fish and seafood by working with independent certifiers. In the UK, for example, Sainsbury’s select fish certified by the Marine Stewardship Council whenever possible, and has declared the aim to source all stock sustainably by 2020.

Jon Turney is a science writer and author of ‘The Rough Guide to the Future’.

Delhaize Group is a Forum for the Future partner.

Photo: Stockbyte/ Thinkstock

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