Code Red Seafood?

September 17, 2010 § 8 Comments

So far on this blog I haven’t gotten into analyses of the local, sustainable food movement. But I’m really curious to get your opinions on this new Whole Foods seafood sustainability program that some of you may have seen, in which they’re color-coding all of the wild-caught seafood they’re selling.

This three-minute video explains more about the program:

In sum, the system gives you green (“best choice”), yellow (“good alternative”), and red (“avoid”) to alert you about which species are overfished. Whole Foods plans to end sales of red-rated species by Earth Day in 2013. Red or “avoid” ratings mean the species is currently suffering from overfishing, or that current fishing methods harm other marine life or habitats.

Although I’m obviously all for eating local, sustainable food, I’m curious to see how people will react.

On the one hand: If you want to eat sustainable seafood, unless you have the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s pocket guide or mobile app for ocean-friendly seafood with you at all times (which, let’s be honest, most people probably don’t), it is difficult to know whether the sushi you just ordered or the swordfish you bought at the grocery is depleting that fish population. So Whole Foods’ program arms consumers with knowledge and transparency at the point of purchase so that they can make informed decisions. And presumably, consumers can carry this knowledge with them to other fish-eating points in their lives.

On the other hand: As I’ve done more reading and researching on the local, sustainable food movement, I’ve been surprised at how much of the media around it comes off as preachy or even guilt-trippy. In my experience, people don’t sustain a change in behavior when they feel lectured or guilted into it. So will people be annoyed at seeing a red alert on that tuna steak they really wanted to bring home, sear and eat on top of a salad? Will they want to consider the sustainability of oceanic wildlife when they’re at the grocery store on a weeknight, tired after work? And, is it weird that Whole Foods is marketing food for the next 2 1/2 years by telling you to avoid it?

So, dear readers, I’d love to hear your opinions:

  • What are your reactions to Whole Foods’ program?
  • If you do, or were to, buy fish at Whole Foods, would you appreciate having the green-yellow-red alerts to help you make an informed selection?
  • Or would you be annoyed at having to ponder oceanic sustainability while grocery shopping?

Please comment below!


If you’re interested in learning more about the sustainability of seafood:

Click here for a good piece from Eatocracy (CNN’s food blog) on what “sustainability” means in the oceanic world.

Click here for a fascinating story from the New York Times Sunday magazine about the powers of tuna (for example: they are warm-blooded creatures that can modulate their body temperatures to survive frigid waters and have an internal GPS that enables them to navigate thousands of miles). I’ve never been a big tuna person anyway, but this article definitely gave me pause about buying it.

Click here to download the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s pocket guide or mobile app for ocean-friendly seafood.


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§ 8 Responses to Code Red Seafood?

  • Ben says:

    I do carry the Seafood Watch guide in my wallet, but appreciate it when I see the color coded labels at stores like WFM. Intuitively, it seems like good marketing for them to allow the customer to feel at ease about a purchase. Thus, I find it odd that they sell red labeled seafood at all.

    Overall: I think it’s a nice start, but I would like to see similar labeling for beef, poultry, etc.

    • Ben, Thanks for stopping by. I agree with you that it seems odd that they’re selling the red-labeled seafood at all, but I’m guessing they don’t want to abruptly stop selling something (like tuna) if it’s commonly purchased without educating consumers about why they don’t carry it. I think your idea about labeling meat is an interesting idea — I do know from going there that WF does label whether beef, poultry, etc. is grass-fed vs. corn-fed, free range, etc.

      • Ben says:

        That’s true, but it remains unthinkable to label meat and poultry with red “do not buy” stickers. Perhaps WFM doesn’t sell from those sources, but other groceries that have adopted the coding system for seafood do. Just a thought. I do feel that incremental change is better than no change!

      • You raise a very good point — it doesn’t seem that groceries even think about color-coding meat, or doing something to make it 100% transparent whether the beef or chicken you’re buying is from a sustainable farm and processor. I believe that Canyon Market, the small, family-owned grocery at which we shop in Glen Park, sells only meat that’s sustainably raised (e.g., smaller farms raising animals on pastures and having them killed and butchered cleanly and humanely), which is one reason we shop there. We also buy meat at farmers’ markets. I’ve seen a couple of meat CSAs pop up in S.F.; this exchange is making me think that perhaps we should try to do more in that vein. Hmm…wheels are turning…

  • mai truong says:

    I agree with the above comments, I think it is great to point out what we should think twice about buying/consuming. I actually do have one of those pocket guides in my bag most times, but it is sometimes really hard to figure out even with the guide, what we should and should not consume (ie: not all menus list how the fish is caught, so longline yellowfin tuna is a no-no, yet, troll/pole yellowfin tuna is OK). I wonder whether Whole Foods is taking so long to phase this out, because the information is more likely to stick with the consumer this way? In other words, if I over time see that yellowfin tuna is red, I will remember this, even if I’m not at Whole Foods (where it won’t be sold anymore) and won’t buy it elsewhere, or at minimum will be thoughtful in my purchase or my menu selection.

    • Cott, Angelia and Mai – Thanks for your thoughtful comments! I agree with you all that more knowledge is better, and I also agree that if part of WF’s motivation is education, *even* better. Part of the reason I posed the question was that I saw someone comment on an article about WF’s program that he didn’t want to make deep, ethical decisions when grocery shopping, so I was curious how many people felt that way.

  • Angelia Sims says:

    I think it’s great to give us this knowledge. I love Whole Foods. In the end, we can still decide for ourselves.

    Yummy pic!

  • Cott says:

    I personally like being given as much information about my food as possible, but I wonder if somehow the whole fish issue could become a PR nightmare for Whole Foods. My immediate response is to say, “if it’s red, stop fishing it NOW. Don’t just wait until 2013.” My attitude towards meat/fish in general is that if I haven’t killed it myself from a sustainable source, I don’t really want to eat it. (Hence the rampant vegetarianism.) But that’s just my way of feeling comfortable with my food.

    From Wholes Foods’ perspective, it could just be a way of getting it into people’s heads that these aren’t great fish to be consuming anyway, no matter where you’re shopping or at what restaurant you’re eating. If the corporation is actually taking part in a process of community education, that’s pretty cool. I think that a good proportion of their customers are at least somewhat familiar with concepts of organic vs non organic, sustainability, eating locally, et c. It’s hip to have this knowledge at least superficially knocking around in your head in the middle/uppermiddle classes these days. It could just be that Whole Foods is building its brand on transparency and conscience, taking a gamble on the idea that their consumers will dig it.

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