Q&A: Managing the influx of green initiatives

Published on
October 3, 2010

As the founder of McKinleyville, Calif., sustainable seafood supplier Wild Planet Foods, Bill Carvalho knows a thing or two about the sustainable seafood business. With the influx of supermarket sustainability programs over the past year — including Whole Foods Market’s new wild seafood ratings system — SeafoodSource received an update from Carvalho on how retailers and sustainable seafood suppliers are working together.

Blank: It seems like most major supermarket chains have launched some kind of sustainable seafood program over the past year. What do you think of the chains’ initiatives?
Carvalho: There is both sincerity and lip service. A good, informed consumer — with a little bit of effort — will be able to distinguish the truth from the superficial. We have had meetings with a lot of chains that don’t have our brand or any other sustainable brand right now. They are certainly trying to get their arms around sustainable seafood, both for their customers and for the purpose of decreasing the heat from groups such as Greenpeace. Consumers want to choose sustainability with their shopping collars, and they will seek ways to do that.

My concern is that I see the word “sustainable” being applied to items that are harvested with great damage being done to the overall ecosystem. There is more to sustainability than a laser focus on stock assessment. There needs to be a real analysis on … the way fish are taken from each fishery and what this is doing to the life web of the ocean environment.

Which retailers are doing a good job with their sustainable seafood programs?
PCC Natural Markets in the Northwest has done a great job of promoting sustainability. They got rid of all seafood in their stores that is not on FishWise’s “green” list. They even got rid of the yellow items.

I love the model that Whole Foods adopted very recently. It does recognize all the contributing factors to true sustainability. These types of programs educate consumers on the entire spectrum of products being offered by retailers. Whole Foods — whether they continue selling red items or not — are educating customers about sustainability fully, item by item. I don’t criticize Whole Foods for selling red items, but I laud PCC for not doing it. They are both doing good things. I don’t know if it is the right thing to cut out all yellow products. There are some good fisheries that have abundant stocks, such as English sole in the Northwest, which is at 92 percent of its un-fished biomass. Consumers are not in tune with this product, even though there is nothing better than stuffed sole.

How are Wild Planet Foods’ products performing in supermarkets and natural food stores?
We are in Whole Foods nationally, as well as all of the food coops and natural food stores. We are in the Kroger group of supermarkets, as well as Stop & Shop, Shop Rite, Hannaford Bros., Wegmans and Earth Fare. We have been filling out our retail line for the grocery space for the last couple of years, and we now have 11 to 15 different SKUs. Our latest addition is U.S.-caught, California-landed sardines. There has been a very nice response to them. A lot of people are enthusiastic about sardines, because of their health and nutritional qualities, and because a lot of sophisticated seafood buyers are very interested in eating lower in the food chain.

We also have canned albacore tuna, 100 percent pole-caught skipjack, salmon and pink shrimp. Pink shrimp is a very abundant product that is underutilized. Globally, people prefer a large shrimp or prawn, which has to be farm-raised. There is wonderful cocktail shrimp here on the West Coast.

What about foodservice sales?
There has been very slow growth in foodservice, because the foodservice operator answers to someone else and this product costs more. Unless there is enough volume and demand, a distributor is not going to carry your item. We do have a 2-pound albacore tuna pouch and a pole-caught skipjack in a can. We are just dipping our toes into frozen albacore steaks, and we want to build out some kind of frozen line.

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