Grocery chain calls attention to seafood via new sustainability ranking

Published on
November 4, 2019

Natural Grocers, a large natural grocery chain operated by Vitamin Cottage, is drawing attention to the traceability and sustainability of its fresh and frozen seafood with its new sustainability ranking system for shoppers.

In a massive overhaul, the Lakewood, Colorado-based operator of 153 stores is calling attention to its meat and seafood departments by more effectively communicating the sustainability and other benefits – such as “Certified Organic” and “Dolphin Safe” – of its current offerings.

“Some long-time shoppers may not have been aware that we have wonderful meat and seafood because all of it comes in a package and some may be behind frozen doors and not at a meat/fish counter,” Christie Zimmerman, product standards manager for Natural Grocers, told SeafoodSource.

Natural Grocers’ executives hope the increased communication and shopper awareness will boost seafood sales, “because there is an increasing demand for healthy proteins but, given the terrible fishing practices that are becoming more common, we want to only support brands doing things sustainably. There is so much cheating in the seafood industry and we’re doing our best to only source with like-minded brands who value the same things we do,” Zimmerman said.

The issues Natural Grocers deems important include not over-fishing a species in decline and using catch methods that do not harm the environment or result in massive by-catch, Zimmerman said.

“We also prioritize real sustainability and transparency as well as brands who value their employees and pay them living wages and are not exploited,” according to Zimmerman.

The fresh and frozen seafood brands Natural Grocers carries include: Blue Hill, Cannon Fish, Echo Falls, Fishpeople, Henry & Lisa’s, Natural Sea, Orca Bay, Pacific Seafood, and Seajoy. Among the species its offers are cod, mahi mahi, salmon, scallops, shrimp, tuna, pollock, rockfish, and sole.

Natural Grocers’ only stocks third-party certified sustainable species, approved by one or more of these certifications: Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC), Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP), Responsible Fisheries Management (RFM), Certified Organic, and Dolphin Safe.

Its new ranking system for fresh and frozen meat will “help customers easily identify and find the quality standards they are looking for,” the retailer said. Meat and seafood products are now ranked and labeled bronze, silver, and gold, “based on criteria that matter to consumers and improves transparency, which is often lacking in label claims,” Natural Grocers added.

“Labels and food industry jargon can be confusing and the average shopper does not know what is a ‘regulated’ term on a label versus one that has no ‘official’ or ‘regulated’ definition,” Zimmerman said. “We think that we’ve added to the transparency by using the definition of a word understood by the average consumer and avoided, to the best of our abilities, loopholes in the industry.”

For example, confusing terms on labels include: “no antibiotics,” “no antibiotics ever,” and “no added antibiotics,” “which can all mean various things depending on the brand,” Zimmerman said. “To us, ‘no antibiotics’ means exactly that – no loopholes, no weird caveats, no antibiotics - ever.”

Customers can quickly look at the "Our Standards" chart on Natural Grocers’ meat and seafood department doors to see what attributes a meat or seafood product carries. 

“The individual rankings give the customer a great deal of information in only a few seconds, allowing them to feel confident about what they are buying without having to obtain a PhD in USDA labeling,” Natural Grocers said.

Its new bronze, silver, and gold rankings include these distinctions:

Bronze:

  • Sustainably farmed
  • Humanely raised
  • No antibiotics, hormones or growth promotants
  • No animal by-products
  • No cloned or genetically modified animals

Silver (includes all Bronze requirements):  

  • Non-GMO feed
  • Non-GMO alfalfa (ruminants)
  • No synthetic colorants (seafood)
  • Free range (poultry)
  • 100 percent grass fed and/or certified organic (ruminants, seafood)
  • Sustainably sourced (seafood)

Gold (includes all Bronze and Silver requirements):

  • Certified organic and/or other regenerative farming practices (beef, poultry, pork)
  • 100 percent U.S. domestic (ruminants, poultry, pork)
  • Wild caught and sustainably certified (seafood, boar)

One of Natural Grocers’ silver-ranked products is Seajoy organic shrimp, which carries certifications from MSC, ASC, and others. The company has “better shrimp breeds, cleaner water, lower stocking densities, more nutrient-rich feed as well as fantastic social programs for their employees and they are doing wonderful work to preserve the natural habitats around them by re-planting mangroves and protecting various turtles species,” Zimmerman said.

The only reason Seajoy’s shrimp is ranked silver and not gold is because it is a farmed – not wild – product, Zimmerman explained.

Photo courtesy of Natural Grocers

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