Getting the Word Out: Retailers Educate Consumers About Seafood Sustainability

Getting the Word Out: Retailers Educate Consumers About Seafood Sustainability

As retailers implement seafood sustainability programs, they work on educating consumers

Unlike so many food industry issues, maintaining sustainability of our seafood supply has not been a major concern of consumers, many retailers and industry sources agree. Naturally, consumers want their favorite seafood available now, but they’re not, for the most part, thinking about what’ll be available in the future. 

The nitty gritty of everyday retailing is dependent on sustainability of all the seafood species popular with consumers, and that’s why retailers are taking measures to educate their shoppers about how sustainability directly benefits them.

“It’s important that we all have an adequate variety of seafood for generations ahead. You and I can eat sea bass and halibut today, but can our children and grandchildren 10 years from now?” James Breuhl, seafood director at Thibodaux, La.-based Rouses Supermarkets [2], asked rhetorically. Rouses has had a sustainability program for five years.

Retailers’ overarching reason for supporting sustainable programs for seafood — as it is for supporting sustainability of all perishable items — is ensuring an adequate supply will continue to be available at an affordable retail price.

Read more: Sobeys Contest, Video Promote Seafood Traceability [3]

Environmental concerns have also played a role, and in very recent years, retailers have collaborated with environmentalist groups and activists to protect the environment at the same time they’re protecting the food supply.

But, it’s the consistency of supply throughout the year, consistency of price and food safety aspects that retailers are emphasizing in their efforts to tell consumers how important sustainability programs are to everybody along the supply chain, including end-users.

Ahold has a “playbook” to help store associates talk to customers about sustainability.

Retailers are using point-of-sale materials, including fact sheets and brochures, video loops and, more recently, social media to get the whole message across to shoppers.

Ahold [4] uses a multi-platform approach to educate customers. The company started working in partnership with the New England Aquarium to develop its sustainability plan in 2000.

“The divisions have information on their websites and brochures in many of the stores,” said Tracy Taylor, procurement manager for Ahold. “Store associates also have a ‘playbook’ which helps them speak to customers about seafood sustainability and what we are doing. We also continually look for ways to better communicate seafood sustainability to our customers in a way that is easy to understand but does not end up ‘greenwashing.’”

Read more: Seafood Made Simple for the Customer [5]

In an earlier interview, Taylor said it is challenging to give the right amount of information to shoppers without confusing them or causing them to lose interest.

Taylor said the number of Ahold store customers asking about seafood sustainability is still fairly small, “but the expectation is that we are the experts and are doing the right thing.”

In addition to direct customer outreach, retailers said they’re using materials to educate their staff so they can convey correct information to their customers.

As reported by SN this spring, the Food Marketing Institute has published a “Sustainable Seafood Retailer Toolkit,” a free resource guide created by the trade organization’s Sustainable Seafood Committee. This guide gives retailers a boost in their endeavor to educate customers as well as how to proceed with their sustainability programs.

Retailers' "Quick Response"

Hannaford Bros. [6], Scarborough, Maine, uses in-store signs and brochures with Quick Response codes that can be scanned with smartphones.

“The QRs, when scanned, direct customers right there to our website where we explain what we’re doing [with the sustainable seafood program],” said George Parmenter, sustainability manager at Hannaford.

Photo courtesy of Ahold

Hannaford’s website gives easy-to-understand details about how its seafood sustainability program works, and what the program’s benefits are. It emphasizes that any product in the store that has seafood as a primary ingredient has been made with sustainable seafood.

Read more: Hannaford Broadens Seafood Policy [7]

Hannaford’s program, just as are most other sustainable seafood programs, was not customer-driven, but industry-driven.

“Sustainability at retail became a lightning rod issue,” Parmenter told SN. “Our executives were pushing us to be proactive. We had senior executives saying they didn’t want Hannaford to be the chain selling the last piece of fish. They wanted the supply to be there, with no wide swings in availability.”

Hannaford developed its sustainable seafood policy in 2010 in partnership with the Gulf of Maine Research Institute. The chain also, like others, uses third-party certification agencies to help audit both fisheries and farm-raised seafood.

While Hannaford promotes QR codes for information about its sustainability program, other chains have taken that tactic a step further.

Roche Bros. [8], Wellesley Hills, Mass., just last month announced a seafood traceability program called Sea Trace that provides transparency regarding the chain’s seafood and also validates that the seafood is sustainably harvested and naturally processed.

Read more: Roche Bros. Seafood Program Emphasizes Local, Sustainable [9]

Roche Bros. customers can scan QR codes for selected species. What they’ll see is a photo of the actual fishing boat, the location fished and even a description of the fishing gear that’s used. In addition, information in-store is offered in brochures and a sustainability video, both of which help customers learn exactly how their selections are sustainably fished and naturally processed. The company has leveraged informational materials from its supplier-partner, Foley Fish.

“At Roche Bros. we have always been committed to offering responsibly harvested seafood,” said the chain’s seafood director, Arthur Ackles, in a statement. “We are now taking steps to better communicate that commitment to our  customers.”

Sidebar: Aquaculture Advancement

At the same time retailers are involved in educating people about sustainability’s benefits, they are also ramping up efforts to expand their programs. These programs are changing what seafood consumers eat.

Certification by a third party has boosted production and consumption of particular species, said Steven Hedlund, communications manager, Global Aquaculture Alliance. “Tilapia is a perfect example. Ten years ago it wasn’t among the top 10 fish consumed. Now, it is No. 4 or 5. Aquaculture is the fastest-growing food production in the world, while wild fisheries have leveled off,” Hedlund said.

Read more: NOAA: Seafood Consumption Fell in 2011 [10]

The boom in worldwide aquaculture has been industry-driven, especially as more countries see a growing middle class that has buying power, Hedlund said. “The [aquaculture] industry sees an opportunity and technology is catching up. It means they can offer a variety of fish at a good price year-round. The big guys can supplement their wild-caught seafood, eliminating gaps in availability.”

While Hedlund and others estimate that in the U.S. about 50% of seafood sales are farmed — much of the product imported — and 50% are wild caught, the breakdown differs from region to region.

Indeed, at Hannaford Bros., located in Maine on the Atlantic Seaboard, seafood sales are made up of approximately 70% farmed and 30% wild caught, said George Parmenter, sustainability manager. Rouses, on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico, has just the opposite mix. At least 70% of Rouses’ seafood selection is wild caught, and 30% is farmed.

“Most of our farmed product, though, is domestic. It’s our catfish filets,” Rouses’ James Breuhl, seafood director, said. “We do, however, import some tilapia from Ecuador.”

Sidebar: Going Solo

While some retailers partner with research institutes and third-party certifying agencies, Rouses depends on government statistics to tell it what species are sustainable in particular locations and at particular times.

“We look at NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] figures. Our idea is that they’re independent. They’re not influenced by different markets for funds like some of the [private] companies and groups are,” James Breuhl, seafood director, said.

Read more: Senator Accuses Whole Foods of Harming Fishermen With Seafood Policy [11]

“We’re actually working on our own certification program,” he explained. “Our whole program will be based on government documentation. We’ll have factual information from NOAA, and we’ll do our own certifying. We’ll go out to the fisheries ourselves — a person from Rouses and a third-party auditor from a certifying agency. It will be our own program, and it will be heavy on education.”

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