Whole Foods Latest Grocer to Push for Sustainable Practices Among Its Seafood Suppliers

 Whole Foods Market said March 30 it would stop selling unsustainable seafood next month.

The world’s largest natural and organic grocer said it will no longer sell seafood that is red-rated, which means that it is overfished or caught in a way that harms other species or habitats. The ratings are determined by the Blue Ocean Institute, an advocacy group, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, California.

Whole Foods hopes that that move will push seafood suppliers to become more sustainable. “This is a huge commitment that the company hopes will create momentum in the seafood industry as a whole toward sourcing more sustainable seafood,” the company said in a statement. As of April 22, Whole Foods will no longer sell red-rated Atlantic halibut, octopus, grey sole, swordfish, imported wild shrimp, certain species of rockfish, and trawl-caught Atlantic cod.

“Fish that have a red rating have a combination of serious problems,” Kate McLaughlin, seafood program director at Blue Ocean Institute, told BNA March 30. “For wild caught, it can mean low abundance, high bycatch, or serious damage to the ocean environment.” Bycatch means anything that is caught that was not a targeted species. “The majority of bycatch is discarded back into the ocean,” McLaughlin said. “It can really have an impact on other populations.”

Companies Use Labels for Different Reasons.

Companies adopt BOI’s ratings for different reasons, McLaughlin said, whether to increase consumer awareness, meet their company mission, or protect their reputation. “[Whole Foods] wanted to provide information to their customers,” she said. “But the extent to which they are taking the efforts has turned into more of a company-driven commitment to sustainability.”

“There is an increase of consumer awareness about these issues--not just seafood, but across foods,” McLaughlin said. There is also increased interest in sustainable seafood across companies.

Whole Foods will continue to sell seafood that is green- and yellow- rated by BOI or Monterey Bay Aquarium. Green ratings mean the species is abundant, well-managed, and caught in environmentally friendly ways. Yellow ratings mean there is some concern with how the species is caught or with the health of its habitat due to other human impacts. Whole Foods sells sustainable alternatives for many of the red-rated species, but for others, such as grey sole or skate, it does not carry an alternative.

Most of Whole Foods’ seafood products are certified by the Marine Stewardship Council, but the council does not certify all fisheries. For products not certified by MSC, Whole Foods uses the color-coded sustainability ratings of BOI or Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Additional Grocers Switch to 'Sustainable' Seafood.

BJ’s Wholesale Club, which operates membership warehouse clubs along the eastern U.S., announced March 14 a plan to source all of its seafood from sustainable suppliers or those on track to meet sustainability standards by 2014. The company will work with MSC, the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership, and the Global Aquaculture Alliance, to ensure their seafood products are sustainable.

BJ's effort also will put pressure on its suppliers to adapt. On its website, the membership wholesaler said it will seek new suppliers if current ones are unable to make improvements after a reasonable time.

In addition, Supervalu, which owns Albertsons, Shoppers, and several other brands, announced last May that it would source its top 20 wild-caught seafood products from sustainable fisheries or those on track to sustainability by 2015. The products will be certified by MSC or by the World Wildlife Fund.

Wind Label Gains Popularity

Other sustainability labels are gaining in popularity. WindMade, which certifies companies that use renewable energy, is gaining traction.

Companies that receive the WindMade label must source at least 25 percent of their electricity consumption from wind energy. The wind energy can be generated at a company-owned wind power facility, through a long-term power purchase agreement for wind power, or through purchasing Renewable Energy Certificates approved by WindMade.

The label will state the percentage of the company’s electricity consumption attributed to wind power.

So far, Motorola Mobility; Bloomberg, of which BNA is a wholly-owned subsidiary; The Lego Group, Pricewaterhouse Coopers Denmark, and others have partnered with WindMade.

The consumer demand is there, the company said. In a survey of 31,000 global consumers, 67,000 globally said they would favor products certified by WindMade products, even at a price premium, the company said.