NFI President Lisa Wallenda Picard wants to bridge gap between industry and regulators
An important thing to know about Lisa Wallenda Picard, she told SeafoodSource, is that she’s an “absolute total geek.”
Picard was named the future president of the National Fisheries Institute in November 2022, and she assumed the role ahead of the 25th Global Seafood Market Conference (GSMC) in Palm Springs, California, U.S.A., taking place 17 to 19 January. A veteran in the food regulatory space, she joined NFI following a stint as the senior vice president for policy, trade, and regulatory affairs at the National Turkey Federation.
Picard said that she’s always had a deep love of seafood, and wanted to learn more about the industry.
“For our 25th wedding anniversary, my husband put together a trip and I told him I wanted to go on a crab boat. Literally, there’s a picture in my office of my 25th wedding anniversary of me on my crab boat, and I got to throw the hook out, and I was so excited,” Picard said. “I’m a humongous geek, and I think that what our members do is so cool. I really take feeding the world very seriously, and I’m very proud to represent the people who do that.”
Picard was originally supposed to assume her new role in mid-December following former NFI President John Connelly’s retirement. Connelly, who served as the president of NFI for nearly 20 years, announced his planned retirement in January and was later diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma, or bile duct cancer - a condition that took his life in November 2022.
Picard said she is well aware of the outsized influence Connelly had on the industry, and the passion he brought to the job – and said that has affected her transition to the new role.
“This transition wasn’t what any of us thought it was going to be or wanted it to be," she said. "My first priority is the staff. These guys have been through two really rough global Covid years, just like everybody else, and they’ve had a rough year – they’re all still grieving in my mind. That’s been my priority. That’s been my main focus.”
When she was initially given a call to apply for the position, she acknowleged she isn’t a fish expert – but soon realized she didn’t have to be.
“I was explaining that I’m not a fish expert – even though I love to eat it! And they assured me I didn’t need to be a fish expert, because there are some of the best fish experts in the world on staff. That’s not what they were hiring for. They needed somebody who could run an association, and I said we should talk because I can do that.”
Picard has an extensive background in the regulatory space for both live animals – she worked for the Ringling Brothers – and animal protein for human consumption, with her past experience with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the turkey federation. That experience, she said, translates well to the seafood regulatory space.
“I see my role as being a translator of sorts, between the regulatory folks who know what they want to do, but they’re not sure how to do it, and the industry people who know how to do it, but aren’t always exactly sure what the regulator people are asking for,” Picard said. “Regulators, I don’t want to say they’re all the same, but they do tend to work from a single pinpoint of most of them really want to solve problems. So we just have to show them what the solution is, and a lot time the solution comes out to realizing the problem doesn’t actually exist.”
Picard acknowledged the industry is facing new regulatory pressures in the coming years – especially amid a push to expand the Seafood Import Monitoring Program.
“There’s a couple of things that are coming at us from the regulatory front. SIMP and traceability are issues, and the team here is pretty phenomenal, but traceability is three years out, and we have to figure out ways for our members to understand what is now required of them,” Picard said.
Picard said the push to expand SIMP to every single species is an example of regulators thinking they want something, but not understand the full implications of what they’re asking for. Asking for full traceability of every single piece of fish imported into the country will require a massive effort that won't even be used by the government, she said.
“They really don’t want all that info. They might think that they want it, but they really don’t. Back to my earlier point – what do they really want to accomplish? Then, how can we make sure that industry can actually do that, and how industry can do that and still remain feeding the world,” Picard said.
Other issues on the horizon for the industry include the increased push to establish a commercially viable cell-cultured seafood industry. While full-scale commercial sales are still years away, Picard said there’s an opportunity to work with the manufacturers of cell-cultured seafood to establish positive relationships.
“Our goal is to feed the world, and we need to get more seafood into people’s bodies to make them healthier – that is the end goal of NFI, or at least one of my goals at NFI,” Picard said. “It has real potential, and we’ve got to be able to support that as it moves forward, and make sure that people know we support them, because we want it to be an option for everybody.”
She said the current development of cell-cultured seafood reminds her of famous scientist Norman Borlaug, an American agronomist who developed strains of wheat that were more resistant to disease and drought. His wheat strains had higher yields and were easier to grow, and his proliferation of the new strains has been credited with saving millions of people from starvation.
“Whenever I talk to interns who are coming into D.C., I say, ‘You have to Google who this guy is,’” she said. “There’s potential there that we could have a similar impact on people overall with the expansion of cell culture. Not to be too do-gooder, but there’s options there we have to embrace.”
Picard’s stance on plant-based seafood analogs, however, is not as broadly welcoming. NFI has long taken issue with how some plant-based products are labeled in ways that imitate real seafood products.
“It’s not tuna. Personally, I have [been] behind this for years, even when I was back at FSIS [USDA]. Don’t make it confusing for people. Don’t put ‘chicken’ with an apostrophe,” she said. “If people want to eat that dumb stuff – and I’m sorry, they’re dumb – but if they want to eat that dumb stuff, they’ve got to know what they’re eating. Don’t trick people into eating terrible things when they could really just have good tuna or a shrimp or something else.”
Picard said there’s a few areas she hopes to help the seafood industry evolve on in the coming years.
“I want to make sure that we really drive home the message of the health profile that seafood has across the board,” she said. “I would also like to see if we can, big picture, make sure we’re addressing if people might be nervous about cooking seafood. I’ve started to see some really cool innovative products that seafood is doing in order to make it easier to produce in the home. We had the big bump during Covid when everyone was home all the time. Now folks are getting back, and maybe looking more for the convenience products. Is there an area there that we can grow? That may be happening – that’s just knowledge areas I need to learn myself.”
Picard added that she’s excited to meet the industry at GSMC and begin diving into the many facets of the seafood industry.
“I’m really hoping I will put a few more faces with companies and get a little better grip on that. I’m excited that the timing of GSMC worked out so that I can go to it,” she said.
For now, Picard said, she wants to continue the trajectory that NFI is on through 2023.
“The search committee made it very clear in every single one of my conversations that they felt that the organization was on the right path, that it was stable financially, that it had a phenomenal group of people in it. So to me, there’s no reason to blow up what clearly works,” Picard said. “I’m not stupid, right? We’ve got a really good group of people – I’m not about to go throw it out the window.”
Photo courtesy of the National Fisheries Institute