Q&A: Seafood Holdings exec talks sustainability

Laky Zervudachi is director of sustainability at foodservice supplier Seafood Holdings, one of the fastest growing private companies in the United Kingdom. As far as Zervudachi is concerned, one of his role's most important aspects is his external work with chefs and caterers to encourage greater understanding of the importance of responsible sourcing.

In an exclusive Q&A with SeafoodSource, Zervudachi, who took on the position in March, said improvements have been made by chefs, fishermen and suppliers in the area of sustainability. He also revealed that the seafood industry as a whole is in line for a real shake-up as a result of the "Food Vision" required by the London Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) for the games that start in London in less than two years. This is the first time a games' organizer has published such a policy.

Here's part one of a two-part Q&A with Zervudachi. Part two will be published on Monday.

Holland: Do you believe today's chefs and caterers understand sustainability issues and why Seafood Holdings supplies fish only taken from certain stocks?
: I think too many people still assume that if a fish is caught within quota or if it is third-party accredited then it must be sustainable. This is a mistake, and I think it's important that chefs grasp that. Once they have that message, we should make sure they have access to the best industry practices on an ongoing basis. That's not something that's going to happen tomorrow or the day after. Also, at the moment, if you were working purely on that basis you wouldn't have very much to sell. So one still has to remain commercially realistic.

With this in mind, my main focus is to draw up a policy that says, "These are the goals Seafood Holdings is aiming for." I'm well aware it's not going to be possible to change everything overnight, but as long as we can see there's a road and put more and more products on that road, particularly certified products, then we will be moving in the right direction.

Our position between the fishing sector and the catering sector gives us the unique ability to influence both sides rather than just allowing ourselves to be squeezed, which in previous times was generally the rule for suppliers. Traditionally, fishermen would have the attitude, "This is the fish we have caught like it or lump it." Similarly, caterers would say, "This is the fish we want, so go out and get it." Now we're in a position where we can say to fishermen and caterers, "This is what we could do for you, as long as you do that."

I think there's an excellent opportunity, particularly now that Seafood Holdings is of a size and one of the larger groups, to create a demand within the catering trade to make it worthwhile for fishermen to get MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) certification, for example. It's definitely a matter of trying to marry both sides rather than letting them go off on their own tangents with neither knowing what the other is doing.

What can chefs do right now to get on a more sustainable path?
There is a clear opportunity to protect fisheries and encourage both sides to really make a difference. Firstly, chefs should be encouraged to seek out good fisheries. Much in the same way as the Good Catch strategy advises — they should go to their suppliers and make sure what they are doing is right. Have they got a policy on sourcing cod, for example? Do they only buy Norwegian or Icelandic?

But even within that they've got to ask if there are sources available that are even better. There's now MSC cod and haddock, so can we persuade them to go on to a completely new product that they haven't used before? Yes, the MSC product has its own problem in that to make it viable it's frozen, so can we break down barriers and get chefs to realize frozen-at-sea products can be very good. We should remind them that most sushi tuna is frozen. In Japan that's what they do.

Chefs and caterers also need to be looking at new aquaculture. They shouldn't assume a fish is fine because it's farmed. There are good producers and bad producers out there, and it takes some investigation work to find the difference. We should also always be encouraging these companies to improve their farming techniques.

Aquaculture is so important. It's going to play a bigger part in the foodservice industry going forward because no matter how you look at it there's never going to be enough fish in the sea to feed this growing population. Therefore, you have to break through old mindsets and also make people understand that things have moved on. Ultimately, chefs and caterers should be encouraged to grab the bull by the horns.

Is it still a battle to get chefs to switch species purely on the basis of sustainability issues?
It has been quite difficult to date and in general people haven't put too much thought into it. But they are starting to move in the right direction. There's no doubt they can see there's something positive about sustainability — it's something that gives them another story, something that's not negative. Essentially, my role is all about positive influence.

Perhaps independent chefs have an advantage in that it's easier to change a sourcing policy for one or two restaurants, whereas it's a much greater task for bigger operations. In some ways, the small operations drive change for the whole industry. They create a point of difference, they need it more and can afford to boast about it.

Still, we're supplying many more species than we were five or six years ago, a far greater diversity, and many more people are willing to listen to us suggest new and alternative products than back then.

In the case of shrimp, for example, most of the industry is focused on farmed black tigers (Penaeus monodon) and Penaeus vannamei — those two represent the bulk of the species. But we've got quite a number of customers that are prepared to pay a bit more for the New Caledonia Prawns [10 farm sites, spread over 477 hectare, producing less than 2,000 metric tons of Litopenaeus stylirostris shrimp per year]. Apart from anything else, they think it's a much better-eating product. They also know that there's a really good eco-story because we've told them about it. They know it's more sustainable, so they are happy to pay the price and they can stand up and say that what they are using is good.

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