By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 16, 2008
There is organic milk. Free-range chicken. Grass-fed beef. Now make room in the fridge for sustainably farmed Arctic char.
Aquaculture is becoming the next big issue at the dinner table. Supermarkets are introducing new standards for the farmed fish and shrimp that make up roughly half of U.S. seafood consumption, riding a wave of consumer demand for environmentally friendly products.
Whole Foods plans to announce today the first comprehensive set of aquaculture guidelines by a major retailer. Wal-Mart has established standards for farmed shrimp and certified its factories with the Aquaculture Certification Council. And Wegmans worked with Environmental Defense Fund on its farmed-shrimp policy to ban antibiotics, avoid damaging sensitive habitats, treat waste water and reduce the use of wild fish to feed shrimp.
"There are actually a lot of farmers right now who are trying to do the right thing," said Jill Schwartz, a spokeswoman for the World Wildlife Fund, which has advised Whole Foods on its standards. "Things are moving in the right direction."
Demand for seafood has grown as U.S. consumers increasingly accept it as an alternative to red meat and poultry. The American Heart Association recommends eating fish twice a week for the omega-3 fatty acids, which are good for the heart. Americans on average ate 16.5 pounds of seafood in 2006, up from 15.6 pounds in 2000, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Supermarkets increasingly rely on the $70 billion worldwide aquaculture industry to help meet that demand as the supply of wild-caught fish remains limited. Although the nonprofit Marine Stewardship Council provides certification for suppliers of wild-caught seafood -- the labels are used in stores from Whole Foods to Wal-Mart -- there is no widely accepted standard for sustainable farming practices.
Several groups are establishing aquaculture guidelines. The World Wildlife Fund launched its "aquaculture dialogues" several years ago and plans to announce standards for tilapia by the end of the year, followed by catfish, several mollusks, shrimp and salmon next year. The Global Aquaculture Alliance has established standards for shrimp and some catfish and is expected to unveil a plan for tilapia soon. And in Europe, the Global Partnership for Good Agriculture Practice certifies salmon and trout and is working on shrimp and tilapia, among others.
But Whole Foods said it decided to develop its own comprehensive plan two years ago, and it began consulting with environmental groups and scientists and visiting its suppliers' farms. The company said it may modify its guidelines as consensus is reached among advocacy organizations.
"Right now, we need a way to source our seafood in a way that meets our customers' expectations," said Carrie Brownstein, seafood quality standards coordinator at Whole Foods. "We don't want to be waiting on the sidelines. We want to be very active in the process."
The new policies would apply to all frozen, fresh, canned and smoked seafood, except mollusks. They include prohibitions on preservatives, antibiotics, hormones and other chemicals that can be harmful to humans but are typically used to stave off sickness and encourage growth in fish. Whole Foods plans to ban farms in wetlands and mangroves, and limit how much wild fish can be used to feed farmed fish.
"They're definitely putting out the most comprehensive aquaculture standards for a retailer," said Teresa Ish, seafood project manager at the Environmental Defense Fund, who worked with Whole Foods. "It really makes a statement to suppliers around the world that this is something that buyers want and that customers want."
Last month, Greenpeace ranked major grocers according to whether they had a sustainability policy for seafood, the types of fish sold, training and labeling. The rankings covered both farmed and wild seafood. Whole Foods came in first, even though its score was just 4 out of 10. John Hocevar, Greenpeace oceans campaign director, said the report was released before Whole Foods' new standards were finalized, and he expects the company's score to increase. Giant parent company Royal Ahold ranked second, followed by Harris Teeter, Wegmans and Wal-Mart.
"Many of the companies that we assessed, and the industry in general, seem to have realized that there is a problem and to varying degrees are starting to work on it," Hocevar said.
Johan Andreassen's salmon farm in Norway piqued Whole Foods' interest in late 2005. Founded with the help of Andreassen's cousin, Villa Organic relies on cleaner fish -- which eat parasites and dead skin on other fish -- rather than chemicals to keep the salmon free of lice. Whole Foods was the company's first U.S. contract and now is its largest buyer.
"We think that retailer is able to think long-term and able to work long-term in order to get a better product, and that's how we want to work," Andreassen said.
He has searched hard -- and paid more -- for fishmeal with low levels of PCBs and other chemicals which have been linked to cancer. Among other measures, he is seeking a new farm site in the Barents Sea.
Andreassen said his costs have increased, and he expects the price of fish at Whole Foods to rise as well. But he said he hopes having an ample supply of healthy fish will at least help keep the price stable. "Whole Foods is a customer that asks for something special and that makes it possible for people in the industry, the producers, to do something different," he said. "Whole Foods will, with the new standards, make the industry move into a better direction."