Thursday, December 13, 2012

Shepherding Shared Stewardship: Whole Foods Leads the Flock

 Shared Stewardship and Supermarkets

This blog is about saving the good life, not just for those who make more than $250,000 and already are living it,  but for all of us. We maintain that the goal of living a better life is the engine that drives our species. Without that motivation, we are like sheep without a shepherd on a rocky mountain path.

Best quality of future life might still be possible if we all become wiser and start making the best decisions/actions possible to support a vibrant global ecosystem. Good decision-making requires commitment, relevant high quality data that is up-to-the-moment and science-based, and collaboration among producers and consumers (as a simple but useful distinction that includes every living creature).

Leaving aside for the moment both commitment and collaboration, the issue of acquiring good data seems like it might be a no-brainer. Performance metrics are as plentiful as French Fries. Raters of performance are as common as catsup. Relatively recent but multiplying rapidly is the flock that rates the raters. Several posts in this blog either rate raters or explore ratings, the most recent of which considered Greenpeace's rating of Safeway as #1 among supermarkets for seafood sustainability.

Keeping em Honest

Greenpeace is " the largest independent direct-action environmental organization in the world" and arguably, the most deservedly widely respected environmental-educator in the world. Their stated goal is to ensure the ability of Earth to nurture life in all its diversity. While their means are diverse, principal among these is to publish documents online that inform the public of what is happening ecologically, who is causing what, and what each of us can do to control the damage. The purpose of these publications is educational: to change attitudes and support behaviors that are ecologically sustainable. The assumption made and shared in this blog is that well-informed consumers can use purchasing power to encourage supermarkets to develop more sustainable practices, which in turn might preserve quality of life for us all, humans, fish, phytoplankton and others.

One of these publications is their supermarket seafood sustainability scorecard published annually. A rating of #1 should reflect top performance in sustainability practices, according to Greenpeace. Intuitively, a consumer who knows that Greenpeace rated Safeway #1 in the US might have confidence in buying seafood at Safeway or its subsidiaries, i.e., in the Santa Barbara area, Von's. In my last post I made a trip to Von's at La Cumbre with the question in mind "Are the fish at Von's sustainable?"  Are there guides to help me choose the most sustainable? A second question was "Does educating the consumer appear to be a top priority with the supermarket rated #1 by Greenpeace for sustainability?" My answer to both questions is no. Taken aback, I decided to check out the nearby Whole Foods, rated #4 by Greenpeace.

Is Whole Foods Shepherding the Stewards?

On December 12 I visited Whole Foods on State Street with the same questions asked at Von's: Does the supermarket clue the consumer as to which choices are most ecologically sustainable? Is there an attempt made to educate the consumer?

While both Safeway and Wholefoods have demonstrated leadership in seafood sustainability, leadership is no guarantee of global guidance. Locally, Von's failed the test of guidance, while Wholefoods surpassed.  At Wholefoods every fish displayed is rated according to the Marine Stewardship Council criteria for sustainability either yellow, meaning some issues, or green, meaning a good choice. The fishmonger at the Santa Barbara Wholefoods was well-informed and informative. No red-listed fish were being marketed. A sign was posted stating that Wholefoods had reached their sustainability goal of marketing only green or yellow seafood ahead of schedule and at present all foods sold there are considered good choices.

Accountability through Comprehensive Transparent Disclosure

Each post in this blog is designed to increase awareness of how dependent quality of life is on biodiversity. Each post is a kind of online report of how beauty and vibrant ecosystems are interdependent. Online reporting is advocated by this blogger as the premier channel through which consumers and producers can engage in a global learning community committed to sustaining  quality of life. Rating the reporters and their reports is equally part of the process of staying keenly aware of what is happening. The fact that Greenpeace rated Safeway #1 for seafood sustainability among supermarkets does not relieve consumers of the responsibility of keeping informed and alert and engaging fishmongers, managers or using online resources to register concern.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Is the Catfish out of the Bag?

image of the largest catfish farm in the U.S. in Humphrey County, Mississippi. "Farm-raised catfish is the largest aquaculture industry in the United States. In 2005, the U.S. catfish industry produced 600 million pounds of catfish from 165,000 pond water acres. The farm-raised catfish industry at $450 million in annual production value has the highest economic value of any aquaculture industry in the United States." Terrill R. Hanson, Catfish Farming in Mississippi

Is the Cat Out of the Bag?

Following up on my last post on supermarkets and seafood sustainability, I revisited Safeway, the  market rated # 1 by Greenpeace on their sustainability scorecard, and known here in Santa Barbara (SB) as Von's. I was curious about how a Greenpeace rating of tops among supermarkets might be used by a consumer wishing to choose among seafoods those produced most sustainably. So on December 4, 2012 I conducted an informal survey of fish being marketed at Von's on La Cumbre in SB with a goal of checking out sustainability education to consumers. What information is offered by Safeway that would help a concerned consumer make an informed decision when buying seafood?

At present the fish counter at Von's at La Cumbre displays on their counter glass three sustainability documents: one is banner-like and reads
"For the second year in a row, Greenpeace rated Safeway #1 in seafood sustainability for national supermarkets."

The other two reflect the scorecard with all markets rated and their ratings, e.g., Safeway received 7.1 out of 10 and Whole Foods was rated #2 with 7/10. There was no other information regarding sustainability.

There was no one at the fish counter,  so I took a few notes for 3 or 4 minutes  then went home to Google myself wiser.

The notes

I noted that farm-raised tilapia from China were being marketed. I checked this against the gold-standard seafood sustainability reference Monterey Bay Aquarium's (MBA)  advisories for tilapia and discovered that MBA advises
"Avoid" farmed tilapia from China and Taiwan, where pollution and weak management are widespread problems. ...U.S. farmed tilapia is the "Best Choice," with tilapia from Central and South America as a "Good Alternative" to other imported product."

I noted that farmed shrimp from Indonesia  were offered for sale. I could not find a rating at MBA for Indonesian farm-rated shrimp, so I Googled this and found some information (not necesarily a good authority) at the Practical Environmentalist:

"Shrimp that are raised in Vietnam, China, Thailand, Indonesia and other associated areas are generally raised in conditions that would not pass inspection in the United States.
One of the scarier chemicals found in shrimp farms is chloramphenicol. This is an ultra-strong antibacterial agent that shrimp farmers use to control disease in overcrowded conditions. It has been banned in the west for decades because it causes blood disorders and has no safe level of exposure. Chloramphenicol isn’t the only dangerous antibiotic used on shrimp farms. Other antibiotics have been tied to liver failure, cancer, and toxic shock."

Farm-raised swai from Vietnam were offered, and this fish turns out to involve major politicking. Swai are native to Southeast Asia, are similar to American catfish native species, and sold variously as basa, Pangasius, or tra,  or in the U.S. as sole or grouper.  The name catfish is legally reserved for species native to the U.S., where the industry is highly regulated. Aquaculture outside of North America and Western Europe is not well regulated and can pose health threats. In 2007 MBA rated farmed Pangasius not as a Best Choice but as a good alternative with some concern over sustainability.

Also, I noted that three fish were tagged as responsible choices: sockeye salmon, catfish from US farms, and  US farmed oysters.  No information explained the identification of these fish as responsible or whether or not a consumer should infer anything about those not marked responsible.  Would they be just not responsible? No one appeared during my 5 minute survey.

So far I would conclude that consumer education is not a top priority at Von's.  Next post will review Whole Foods' educational offerings at their fish counter.