Cooke Aquaculture talks eco-labeling

Editor’s note: SeafoodSource Editor Steven Hedlund is in San Diego this week reporting from the World Aquaculture Society’s Aquaculture 2010 conference.

Cooke Aquaculture spokesperson Nell Halse talks to SeafoodSource about everything from embracing eco-labeling and obtaining Seafood Trust certification to Chile’s battle with the infectious salmon anemia (ISA) virus. This is part two of a two-part Q&A. Part one ran on Tuesday.

Hedlund: If you’re not receiving a price premium for eco-labeled seafood, what’s the benefit of obtaining certification?
A few years ago, we could see that this was going to take a long time. We felt there would be value in getting out ahead of the curve and branding ourselves as being serious about our environmental commitment and third-party certification. So we went with Seafood Trust. But that’s not to say that [when the Salmon Aquaculture Dialogue’s standards] come out and they’re really supported and endorsed by the NGO community that we wouldn’t also seek certification to that, or whatever program becomes the one of choice. But, in the meantime, we’ve built that culture within the company. Everyone in our company knows what it means.

What retailers and foodservice operators are carrying Cooke Aquaculture’s Seafood Trust farmed salmon?
We’ve been selectively working with key customers. We have key retailers in Canada now using the eco-label, such as Sobeys. We’ve also had two launches with the Fairmont hotel chain. At the Boston Seafood Show we’re planning another launch with an American restaurant chain.

It’s a bit of a process because the chain of custody needs to be carefully worked out so that we can control the product right to the end customer. One of the challenges is, if the program was really well recognized, we would not have to do as much as [promotion] as we do now. Some of our customers have developed their own standards in terms of sustainable seafood sourcing, or they’ve worked with an NGO, and so they have their own forms and questionnaires, which might be slightly different than what we do. So we’ve had to do a fair amount of extra work in responding to these questionnaires, which is somewhat frustrating. But it’s part of the process.

That’s why getting the label out there is somewhat of a slow process. We have to make sure each customer has the material they need so that they can answer questions accurately. We work very closely with them to make sure they have that material. That takes time.

What do NGOs say about the Seafood Trust certification system?
This is still a new world — third-party certification. And there are some NGOs who are critical. We’ve had customers say, “Well, how can you have an eco-label and farmed salmon is still on the red list at the Monterey Bay Aquarium?” That’s a very good question. And, in fact, we are actively in dialog with the Monterey Bay Aquarium about that. They are being pressured somewhat by buyers to be more creative, and we certainly are. And my hope, within the coming year, is that we will see them look at this more carefully rather than as a blanket statement.

Given the fact that we still have a lot of challenges, in terms of certification and acceptance, we’d be so much further behind if we hadn’t taken this approach. We really feel that this is extremely positive. It’ll be a big focus for us at the Boston Seafood Show.

In 2007, Cooke Aquaculture acquired Salmones Cupquelan SA in Chile. How has the company dealt with ISA?
Salmones Cupquelan‘s farms are in Region XI, so it’s far south in an isolated fjord. Because it’s isolated and because we’ve learned in New Brunswick about fighting disease like ISA, we’ve taken those lessons and applied them to southern Chile. So far we’ve been very successful. Right now we’re one of the biggest exporters of Atlantic salmon from Chile because of the downturn so many companies are experiencing.

But that isn’t to say we aren’t vulnerable to all the same issues and problems. One thing we know about ISA is it never disappears for good. You better be diligent. The Chilean salmon industry is undergoing some trauma. But they’re also looking around the world for solutions and they’re already implementing some of the changes. People talk about the supply being down. But it will return.

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