New study looks at seafood sustainability, Asian imports through the eyes of US chefs

Published on
February 4, 2016

Vendors and suppliers are the most important factor influencing chefs when it comes to seafood procurement and sustainability, according to a new study investigating commonly-held beliefs of professional cooks in the United States.

The study, performed by James E. Griffin, a professor of culinary studies at Johnson and Wales University, and funded by the nonprofit Global Aquaculture Alliance, surveyed 90 professional chefs with purchasing responsibility, asking about their beliefs and preferences when it comes to seafood sustainability and sourcing preferences.

The study had four major findings: chefs consider sustainability important and aren’t sure whether farmed seafood is sustainable; chefs have strong preferences when it comes to country of origin but limited awareness of certification processes such BAP or ASC; chefs trust Canadian, U.S. and European seafood to be sustainable and avoid imports from Asian countries, particularly China, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia; chefs rely heavily on their suppliers to procure seafood that’s sustainable.

“Food service represents a huge part of the seafood marketplace and yet very little research has been done on the processes and preferences of chefs in regard to sustainability,” Griffin said. “The survey results clearly show there’s lots to learn from chefs.”

Chefs’ views on sustainability

Griffin asked participants their opinions on seafood sustainability and farmed fish. Of the 90 respondents, 86 percent deemed seafood sustainability either “important” or “extremely important.” However, the survey found that chefs don’t always check if the seafood they order is sustainable. Regarding certifications, just 60 percent of respondents were familiar with the BAP logo and only 47 were familiar with the ASC logo.

When asked about farmed seafood, 80 percent of respondents said its use in commercial kitchens was increasing, though only 43 percent of chefs reported a positive perspective on farmed seafood overall, with 43 percent reporting a neutral opinion and 13 percent claiming a negative opinion. Those with a negative opinion listed quality, environmental damage and animal welfare as their top concerns with farmed seafood.

“The biggest factors driving the use of farmed seafood in restaurants are pricing, consistency and availability,” Griffin said. “But chefs still need to be convinced that farming seafood is an ecologically sound practice.”

Europe hot, Asia not

Griffin said the most surprising finding in the study was the extent to which the chefs surveyed distrusted seafood from Asia. Chinese-sourced seafood was particularly disliked, as 54 percent of respondents said they avoided it when possible. Other Asian countries also suffer from image problems, as 40 percent of chefs said they avoided Vietnamese seafood and 35 percent avoided Thai and Indonesian product.

Contrarily, 68 percent of chefs surveyed said they sought out Canadian seafood, making it the most popular country for sourcing. The U.S. was second as 64 percent of respondents said they sought out American product, and the northern European countries of Norway (54 percent positive), Iceland (53 percent) and Scotland (53 percent) also did well in the survey.

“I was really started by the data on Asia. It held up across the study that chefs have a strong aversion to Asian seafood,” Griffin said. “It’s something that Asian producers should definitely be concerned about.”

A perception of looser regulations, inconsistencies in ethical practices and a perception that cheaper prices equated to inferior product is hurting Asia’s reputation as a seafood supplier, Griffin said. A lack of a long-term investment in branding and reputation-building might also have put Asia at a comparative disadvantage, especially considering countries like Scotland and Norway have invested millions of dollars in such efforts over the past decades.

“It’s really too bad that Asia’s reputation is not higher in the U.S., there are a tremendous number of ethical, high quality producers doing great work there and they’re getting painted with a brush that’s not positive,” Griffin said. “There’s a need to get messaging across in U.S. kitchens that quality of what Asian markets are supplying is wonderful overall and doing Asian suppliers are by and large committed to maintaining high social and environmental standards.”

Trusting vendors on responsibility

Seafood presents a unique challenge to well-intentioned chefs who care about sustainability but struggle with finding enough time to do thorough research, Griffin said.

“Some chefs, especially in high-end restaurants, are extremely knowledgeable. They do all their own verification and thoroughly vet out any species or fishery they deem to be at risk,” Griffin said. “The majority, however, defer almost entirely to their vendor to make those calls, mainly due to how busy they are and the complexity of the issue.”

That data becomes even more interesting when combined with another finding from the survey: 44 percent of participating chefs said they preferred researching seafood sustainability online, versus 33 percent of chefs who preferred getting information from suppliers, vendors and visits to sources.

Griffin said he believed chefs would like to know more about the sourcing of the seafood they serve, but “when 80 percent of their menu is chicken, beef or pork, and then other 20 percent is composed of as many as 30 species of seafood from all different parts of the world, that can get overwhelming.” As a result, he said, they stick with what they’re familiar with: salmon (31 percent of chefs offered it on a regular basis) and shrimp (18 percent).

Opportunity abounds

Sustainability seafood marketing organizations, certification programs and vendors and suppliers have the most to learn from the survey, Griffin said. For marketing groups, especially those representing Asian countries, more needs to be done to spread the word of the positive and sustainable practices of many of the providers located in countries American chefs currently avoid.

Certification programs should push harder on educational efforts to ensure their logos can be identified, understood and appreciated by chefs who make purchasing decisions, Griffin said.

Perhaps those with the most to gain from the survey are vendors and suppliers, who have been shown to have an enormous influence over chefs’ seafood purchasing decisions.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity for vendors to step up and help chefs out with objective information and their best independent judgment,” Griffin said.

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