Don’t read this column


Steven Hedlund

Published on
September 28, 2010

There’s a trend sweeping the retail seafood scene — a trend that addresses one of the biggest challenges facing retailers when it comes to fish (consumer lack of knowledge) but may leave seafood professionals wondering, “Why sell something you don’t want anyone to buy?”

Earlier this month, Whole Foods Market became the latest retailer to tout its sustainable seafood initiatives by launching a wild seafood ratings system, based on either the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s popular Seafood Watch traffic-light guide, which categorizes species as either a best choice (green), good alternative (yellow) or avoid (red), or information from the Blue Ocean Institute. Whole Foods’ intentions are clearly in the right place — the Austin, Texas-based retailer has built its business on offering natural, wholesome foods raised or caught in a sustainable manner and employing a knowledgeable staff catering to a sophisticated customer base.

As part of the new seafood ratings system, Whole Foods stocks its seafood cases with species it advises its customers not to purchase because they’re unsustainable. For example, fresh Hawaiian bigeye tuna fillets are labeled as “avoid.” The retailer has pledged to discontinue sales of all red-rated species by Earth Day 2013.

Though it may be the first retailer to launch such a system on a national scale, Whole Foods isn’t alone when it comes to unconventional seafood-merchandising tactics. Canadian supermarket heavyweight Loblaw, for example, leaves trays in some of its seafood cases empty where “at risk” species were once displayed until they’re replaced with sustainable alternatives. The goal is to create a visual message to educate consumers about sustainable seafood.

To some, Whole Foods and Loblaw are taking the bull by the horns, advancing the sustainable seafood movement and challenging consumers to take sustainability seriously. To others, they’re off the mark — one retail-seafood consultant I talked to this week called Whole Foods’ seafood ratings system “ridiculous,” and one small natural-foods retailer referred to it as a “gimmick.”

“It’s just a bizarre move,” said the retailer. “They’re touting this seafood ratings system but continue to mostly sell non-green seafood. We just stop selling it, just like we did with our bottled water a few months ago.”

With nearly 300 stores in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, maybe Whole Foods is too big to abruptly halt sales of a particular species? But telling its customers not to buy something it offers is akin to publishing a column I don’t want my readers to see.

Maybe the critics are being too hard on Whole Foods for trying to do something about the lack of seafood knowledge among consumers. Still, I can’t help but ask, “Why sell something you don’t want anyone to buy?”

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