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Fresh Catch

From large chains to small independents, retailers are finding new ways to emphasize and promote the freshness of their seafood offerings. With buy local, buy fresh signs becoming a more common sight in produce departments, and consumers now looking for other products sourced close to their homes, local seafood is getting its due. For example, Montvale, N.J.-based A&P's Seafood Joe's Market Fresh

From large chains to small independents, retailers are finding new ways to emphasize and promote the freshness of their seafood offerings.

With “buy local, buy fresh” signs becoming a more common sight in produce departments, and consumers now looking for other products sourced close to their homes, local seafood is getting its due.

For example, Montvale, N.J.-based A&P's “Seafood Joe's Market Fresh Fish” program, launched last summer, is a chainwide effort to put localness and thus freshness in the spotlight.

A&P purchases Atlantic seafood from locations closest to its respective divisions, officials told SN.

“The company has always used local seafood as it is always the freshest,” Joe D'Alessandro, senior director of seafood merchandising, told SN.

“We've always sourced local seafood direct from three dedicated suppliers out of three strategic locations. From them, we can have fish go from the boat to the store within 24 hours. The local fish is from the specific waters surrounding the stores we service, mostly Mid-Atlantic fish.”

The company also purchases trout farmed in Pennsylvania.

“That [product] literally goes from the ponds to the warehouse the same day and is distributed out to the stores the next day.”

Meanwhile, metro New York Web-grocer FreshDirect has just unveiled a seafood rating system, modeled after a produce rating system it has had success with.

The new rating system lets customers know which items are the catch of the day and the best seasonal picks, officials said.

In-house seafood experts judge fresh seafood items by smell, look and feel, and then award them from one to five stars. Five stars means “never better, outstanding.”

An item getting four stars today indicates “great, a ‘don't miss’ peak-season product” that would be great for delivery tomorrow. The stars change each day. Not surprisingly, most seafood items on FreshDirect's website get four stars. For the sake of freshness, the company has developed partnerships with suppliers within 300 miles.

“We try to source as much local seafood as we possibly can,” said Emma Fuerst Freylinghuysen, FreshDirect's merchandising director, front of store.

Officials at small, regional supermarket chains and independents told SN they have been renewing emphasis on the freshness of their seafood. They talked about how important it is to have a seafood buyer who knows what to look for as seafood comes in the door.

If the product doesn't stand up to pre-agreed-upon specs, it's turned back.

“We buy seafood from lots of sources, but most are local,” said Mike Bove, vice president, perishables, Associated Grocers of Baton Rouge, La., which supplies some 200 member stores.

“Mississippi, as well as Louisiana, is considered local here.”

The local buying strategy and the training that AG gives its associates make seafood stand out at its stores, one industry source told SN.

“Associated's fresh seafood is a destination at its stores,” said consultant Burt P. Flickinger, managing director, Strategic Resource Group, New York.

“The cooperatives and independents are really taking seafood opportunities and making them better.”

At United Supermarkets, Lubbock, Texas, Scott Nettles, the 50-unit chain's director of meat and seafood, said his company is trying to move away from products from China, Indonesia and Bangladesh. He's developing more sources to get Texas Gulf shrimp and is getting crawfish from a Wichita Falls, Texas, grower. His catfish and farmed salmon come from the Mississippi Delta.

United, however, doesn't buy direct.

“We're small. We buy in such relatively small amounts, that buying direct wouldn't be effective for us. We use a third party, but deal with just one person.”

And that person is well-versed in United's specifications for its seafood.

For most small- to medium-sized chains, buying seafood from a third party works fine as long as that third party is well-known to the buyer and he can be counted on to honor the supermarket's specifications, said a seafood consultant.

“What's extremely important is getting the receiver of the seafood [at the store or the warehouse] trained to be able to quickly evaluate the product for quality and freshness,” said Dave Almeda, seafood consultant/sales rep for large retailers and suppliers, and a former A&P executive.

In fact, Almeda said he knew a grocer in the Philadelphia area who had just hired an experienced seafood man who will be dedicated to doing just that.

One family-owned, nine-unit independent — Kowalski's Markets, St. Paul, Minn. — has built relationships over the years with suppliers and it does buy direct from almost all of them, said Boyd Oase, meat and seafood director.

“Having a direct relationship with our sources, even in Alaska, gives us most of the benefits that buying from a source nearby would give us,” Oase said.

In other words, it's the direct relationship that counts, not how far the fish travels.

“We know it's as fresh as it can be, and sustainability is a big factor,” Oase said.

“We know how the fish are caught. We've visited these operations and we know what methods they use. We've watched.”

He said Kowalski's has a direct relationship with a group of family-owned fisheries in Alaska for its salmon, halibut and cod. For other species, the chain depends on one distributor, with which it has had a longtime relationship. It knows Kowalski's specifications for freshness, quality and sustainability, Oase said.

“We haven't made any big changes in the last year. We've always looked at sustainability and at the fishermen themselves.”

A&P, which also has monitored sustainability for years, reinforced that effort recently.

“Many changes have been made over the last year in the area of sustainability,” A&P's D'Alessandro told SN.

“We made the decision, for instance, to not carry orange roughy, shark, hoki, bluefin tuna, and Atlantic halibut and Chilean sea bass. Currently, we only carry [Marine Stewardship Council] Chilean sea bass.”

And Associated Grocers' Mike Bove is involved with a project dedicated to ensuring sustainability as well as traceability.

Working with Louisiana State University and the Louisiana Seafood Marketing Board, Bove and AG aim to eventually have a supply of Certified Louisiana Shrimp.

“When this is operating, the consumer can be confident the product can be traced to the actual shrimper, to the boat.

“The Indonesia product is a good product, but they just don't taste the same as Louisiana shrimp and we're interested in protecting the local shrimp companies,” Bove said.

The certified shrimp would be caught in local waters, and the boats would come in more often, thus ensuring freshness.

“We'll have to certify that the shrimp were kept at the right temperature from catch to the store, and no chemicals used,” Bove said.

“This is taking time, but our goal is to get outside of Louisiana with the product and drive the market nationwide.”

One aim, in the wake of back-to-back hurricanes that put 20% of local shrimpers out of business, is to keep the Louisiana shrimp industry going, and ensure consumers of a top-quality product that can be easily traced.

Two other retail chains kept being mentioned as SN talked to seafood industry sources.

“Wegmans and Whole Foods have great sourcing systems. I know they buy a lot of their seafood direct and their people are trained so well,” consultant Almeda said.

“Wegmans and Whole Foods and the other good ones don't buy by cost. They are committed to quality, and also to sustainability.”

Another consultant, Tom DeMott, Encore Associates, said he thinks more and more retailers are paying attention to sustainability even as they continue to focus on price.

“Retailers are always focused on price, but they're also concerned about getting product from sustainable sources.”