Embracing the Ethical

Governments and policymakers can shift policy and enact regulations on food, but it is consumers and big buyers who can rapidly reshape the market and make the most impact by voting with their food dollars. From farm-friendly companies like Niman Ranch and Heritage Foods U.S.A. to major corporations like Whole Foods, and even Smithfield Foods, business is starting to meet consumer demand for safe, humane, and sustainable meat production. The same is happening in the seafood supply chain—from fishing cooperatives whose members are returning to less destructive artisanal methods to large supermarket chains that are marketing sustainable seafood as the healthier choice.

There are two sides to this innovation—a move by the food industry to embrace ecologically sustainable food and label it as such and a reciprocal response from shoppers who seek out this choice. In some cases consumers help set the relationship in motion. Heritage and rare breeds of livestock are coming back in vogue because of their unique qualities: healthier meat, milk, and eggs and better flavor. More sustainable fish also are often the ones that have a lower risk of mercury contamination, because they tend to be lower on the marine food chain.

These markets for ethical meat and seafood cannot grow without clear labels and certifi

Meat and Seafood: The Global Diet's Most Costly Ingredients cation programs that ensure that one farmer or fisher is different from another—and that consumers are really getting what they pay for. In the case of seafood, the impetus for such certification actually came from Unilever, the Dutch food and consumer products giant. In the 1990s, Unilever—then the world's largest seafood buyer—faced considerable pressure from its customers and from environmental groups to rethink its seafood purchases. But the company needed some guidance on which species to avoid and which to favor.37

Working with WWF, Unilever helped create the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) in 1997 to certify fish populations as sustainable and to provide direction for the nascent sustainable seafood market. The MSC is now supported by at least 100 corporate, environmental, and consumer organizations in more than 20 nations, all of whom have a stake in the future of the global seafood supply. Certified fisheries can use the group's "Fish Forever" ecolabel, signifying that their product was caught using environmentally sound, economical, and socially responsible management practices. More than 300 seafood products bearing the MSC blue ecolabel are available in supermarkets in nearly 30 nations.38

Certain seafood companies are beginning to base their entire business on "the story behind the fish"—how it was raised, caught, and processed—just as many supermarkets and agribusinesses now capitalize on rising global interest in organic produce, grass-fed beef, and other "environmentally friendly" food choices. Consider EcoFish, a distributor based in the state of New Hampshire. Founded in 1999 as the only company in the world whose sole mission was to identify and market seafood originating from environmentally sustainable fisheries, EcoFish's products are now found in more than 1,000 stores and 150 restaurants throughout the

United States. Another U.S. firm, CleanFish, specializes in finding a market for seafood caught by smaller-scale fishers around the world, whose artisanal techniques are less likely than large-scale fishing fleets to harm the marine environment (and the quality of the fish flesh).39

In contrast to certification through the MSC, an expensive process that can take some time and begins in response to requests from fisheries, EcoFish and CleanFish seek out seafood supplies from around the world and then assess whether they meet certain standards. This has allowed the two firms to offer a wider range of seafood—including farmed seafood—and to offer products years before they receive MSC certification. EcoFish recently received an investment grant that it hopes will allow its sales to grow fivefold in the next three years, to $15-20 million. EcoFish products are now available in 243 branches of Loblaws, Canada's largest seafood retailer.40

These innovations in sales pitch have a way of being contagious, particularly when they involve big players in the market. In June 2007 Tyson Foods—one of the largest meat processors in the world—decided to quit doing something that has been a hallmark of industrial animal agriculture since the 1950s. The company announced that the birds it sells to grocery stores and restaurants all over the country would no longer be treated with antibiotics. This move was not altogether altruistic or even based on health concerns about antibiotics resistance. Instead, Tyson was reacting to consumer demand for antibiotic-free meat products.41

Once one major industry player makes the shift, its competitors often must do the same or risk losing business. In early 2006, Darden Restaurants—parent company of Red Lobster, the top seafood restaurant chain in the United States, with 1,300 locations—

Meat and Seafood:The Global Diet's Most Costly Ingredients announced plans to certify all its farm-raised shrimp "to ensure it is grown in a sustainable way, with minimal impacts on the environment." And Wal-Mart, the world's largest retail store and the largest food seller in the United States, announced that within three to five years it would be certifying that all its seafood for the North American market was raised sustainably. Critics suggest the standards could be stiffer, and implementation is far from assured.42

Other big companies are also jumping on the natural, organic, or humanely raised bandwagon, partly for economic reasons. Smith-field announced in 2005 that it would only buy from suppliers who did not use antibiotics on their animals. Burger King—the second largest fast-food company—has said that it will try to buy animals that are given more living space. Natural foods giant Whole Foods will introduce labeling criteria in 2008 that give consumers detailed information about how the meat on their plates was raised, treated, and slaughtered.43

Consumers are also looking to connect directly with livestock producers. A few years ago it was hard for consumers to find farms where they could buy grass-fed and pasture-raised eggs, meat, and milk. Today there are more than 800 U.S. and Canadian farms listed on the Web site Eatwild.com, an organization that promotes grass-raised animal products.44 Fishing communities are a growing ally in this movement. Fishers are often the first to know that a given fish supply is endangered. So it is not surprising that fishers are using the newfound consumer awareness about the state of the world's fisheries to redefine their own role. In some cases this means returning to older fishing techniques that are less destructive and that help preserve the quality of the seafood. The Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen's Association, faced with depletion of the cod stock that his torically sustained its members, decided to promote "old fashioned" hook lines that mean considerably less bycatch and fish that are less likely to get damaged, so that their texture and taste are usually superior.45

In other cases, like Alaska's wild salmon fishery or wild shrimp harvesters off Viet Nam's coast, fishers are forming cooperatives to manage a given fishery collectively and perhaps even to cut down on the total catch. When it is their own survival at stake, they are proving to be quite innovative. And just as seafood companies are beginning to see fish as a form of wildlife rather than just a commodity, fishers are making a similar shift in mindset, adopting a marketing strategy that treats the fish as a higher-value product rather than a low-cost raw material for processing.46

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