Encouraging American Fish Consumption an Upstream Struggle

June 01, 2010

A joint report published by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations and the World Health Organization (WHO) is putting pressure on governments to do a better job emphasizing the benefits of eating seafood for heart and brain health.

A joint report published by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations and the World Health Organization (WHO) is putting pressure on governments to do a better job emphasizing the benefits of eating seafood for heart and brain health. The American diet came under the most scrutiny in the report, illustrating that fish is especially lacking in our diet, providing only about seven percent of animal protein found in an average American diet while in Asian countries that portion is more than 25 percent. 

“The report spotlights an incredibly healthy food that Americans seem to underestimate,” said Jennifer McGuire, a registered dietitian with the National Fisheries Institute, in a recent statement. “What I’m hearing from the scientists behind this publication is that not eating enough protein- and omega-3-packed fish has consequences on public health, and governments need to adjust their communications to reflect that reality.”

The report comes at a critical time for the federal government, grocery retailers and the American fishing industry. A whirlwind of media attention focused on the sustainability and safe sourcing of seafood has been ignited by the Gulf oil-spill crisis. Food safety issues are spurring on the demand for well-sourced seafood. Continued attention from grocers, restaurants and consumers is putting the spotlight on seafood traceability. Grocery retailers can harness the power of the moment, instituting focused education and in-store marketing to promote well-sourced seafood. Helping consumers to understand the benefits of adding more fish to their diets, as well as directing them toward the best choices in sustainable, safe sources will become more critical in the coming months. Grocery retailers will have to guide consumers to understand both the drawbacks of buying seafood caught in the wild while also balancing the environmental issues attached to seafood raised in fish farms. 

Federal nutrition experts are also preparing to update the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Largely overlooked in the past, the importance of eating seafood is expected to be addressed. In addition, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is under pressure to update its six-year-old seafood consumption advice.

“Any questions about the safety and healthfulness of seafood are silenced by a report of this caliber,” McGuire continued. “We’re at the point where people can replace emotion-based misinformation with science-based advice that will help reverse the health problems associated with a typical low-seafood American diet.”

Grocery retailers and the food service industry can avail of the efforts of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). The MSC is an international nonprofit organization set up to promote solutions to the problem of overfishing. Its certification and ecolabeling program for wild-capture fisheries is consistent with the ISEAL Code of Good Practice for Setting Social and Environmental Standards and the United Nations’ FAO guidelines for fisheries certification. Products are provided with MSC Chain of Custody certification that the retailer can label at the store level. By using the MSC program, a retailer has a system to verify that the seafood product has come from a certified sustainable fishery. 

Mike DeCesare, Marine Stewardship Council communications director, explained to Supermarketguru.com that the program is voluntary, and fisheries that enter the program are assessed by an independent certifier against the MSC core principles. The MSC then promotes those fisheries that have been certified to the MSC standard. 

Publix already sells 47 MSC-certified products, including Patagonian Bay scallops, Alaskan coho, king and sockeye salmon, Alaskan pollock, halibut, and sablefish. But Publix does not use MSC labeling, and it stresses that it does not currently participate in any seafood ecolabeling programs. 

On its Web site, Publix states: “The labels, which are meant to inform consumers about products that are sustainable, can be confusing because of inconsistencies between programs. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is perhaps the best known of all the labeling programs, but the cost of certification is too much for many small industry fisheries.”

In spite of the cost, fisheries continue to take hold of the MSC certification. The Southeast U.S. North Atlantic bigeye tuna and yellowfin tuna pelagic longline fishery is entering full assessment in the MSC certification program for sustainable and well-managed fisheries. If successful, products from this fishery will be eligible to bear the blue MSC ecolabel.

Several grocers are creating their own guidelines in sourcing seafood. Target announced earlier this year that it has eliminated all farmed salmon from its fresh, frozen and smoked seafood offerings in its stores nationwide. Last month, Publix revealed its own companywide project to rank seafood supplies on sustainability and to stop buying stocks that don’t meet certain standards over time. More than 300 seafood items that Publix sells will come under a new grading scale. A recent article in the Sun-Sentinel states that Publix is working behind the scenes with three environmental groups to develop standards: Ocean Trust, Ocean Conservancy and Sustainable Fisheries Partnership (SFP). By August, Publix expects SFP in particular to help categorize supplies into three groups: “Sustainable,” “Needs Improvement” and “Needs Major Improvement.”

While still under development, Publix’ sustainability grades will be created from a long list of criteria: general strengths and weaknesses of each fishery, stock status and environmental impact. Each category has sub-tests. For instance, the environmental test takes into account the amount and type of other species caught by accident, and habitat damage by the type of gear or farming method used. Wild-harvested Gulf shrimp, for example, would be subject to taking into account the amount of other species caught by accident and turtle interaction. Publix officials said they would apply pressure on the low scoring fisheries to improve their practices. If the fishery doesn’t improve over time, Publix will stop buying a given stock from it.

This focus is a great way for the fishing industry itself to start taking stock, paying attention to the way it farms and fishes. With more attention and focused efforts in the grocery seafood department, consumers themselves may finally incorporate more of this healthy protein into their daily lives.