Why make sustainability controversial?

Published on
November 10, 2009

Charles Clover’s most recent venture is consistent with the type of controversy for which the author and director of “The End of the Line” is well known.

Fish2Fork.com, which rates restaurants on the sustainability of the seafood they serve, launched a month ago, exposing well-known establishments for having unsustainable practices. The tabloids, always eager for a sensationalized news story, quickly picked up on it.

In most cases, chefs’ so-called crimes were due to a failure to respond to a questionnaire distributed by the Web site’s researchers, who reviewed a total of 100 establishments. Where no information was received, details were culled from online menus, which do not always specify the provenance and sustainability rating of the seafood offered.

Restaurants protested en mass. Some quickly filled out the Fish2Fork questionnaire and saw their ratings rise, while others contacted their lawyers. A month on, the problems continue, with some critics saying, “How dare Charles Clover dictate the nation’s restaurants’ purchasing policies on seafood?”

They have a point — Clover has created a blunt tool that needs considerable refinement. But the idea behind it is sound enough. We can all pay lip service to the concept of seafood sustainability, or we can unite behind it and ask chefs and the rest of the supply chain to become more aware.

However, asking members of the public to make this judgment is not sound, because the vast majority do not have the expertise to do so. The Web site provides a highly detailed questionnaire and requests diners to take it to restaurants to fill out. It asks questions including, “If the restaurant serves farmed carnivorous fish such as salmon, please indicate if it attempts to ensure that these were fed on fishmeal from sustainable sources.” This is a difficult question and requires a detailed discussion with a knowledgeable chef, rather than a 5-minute guess by a well-meaning diner.

Menu items are also scored against the Marine Conservation Society’s FishOnline database of species to eat and avoid, which is itself considered by many industry organizations as another blunt and not-always-accurate tool.

Waitrose, one of the UK’s top five food retailers, is a main sponsor of the site and also sponsored the film. It gained them considerable publicity, but in the wake of recent bad press for fish2fork.com, the supermarket said the sponsorship is for a three-month trial period only.

Seafood Choices Alliance’s Good Catch Initiative is also listed as a supporter, which suggests it is in full favour of the content. However, according to Emily Howgate, who manages the project, the term “supporter” may be inappropriate for Good Catch’s role and may even suggest that it supports the Web site financially.

“As such we have spoken with the Fish2Fork folks about the use of some different term, such as ‘resource,’” said Howgate. “The terminology and positioning of Good Catch on the Fish2Fork Web site is being reviewed to ensure it is clearly positioned for the chef/restaurant audience as a resource tool, and to avoid possible confusion around interpretation of the word ‘supporter.’ We anticipate such Web site clarifications to happen soon.”

Both have the same idea but take different approaches, and Howgate hopes that the two can eventually become complementary to help further the sustainability cause.  

The moral of this tale is that the public needs to be as careful in sourcing information as restaurants should be in sourcing seafood. The sooner we all agree on a global definition of sustainability, the better.

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