Q&A: Olympics to influence seafood sustainability

Published on
October 3, 2010

Here’s part two of a two-part Q&A with Laky Zervudachi, director of sustainability at foodservice supplier Seafood Holdings. Part one ran on Friday.

Holland: Despite so much good work behind the scenes, it appears as though there’s some distance to go before sustainability becomes the foodservice industry norm. Is that the case?
It will take time, but I believe there’s one thing that’s going to move everything forward very quickly in one great leap, and that’s the rules about fish that have been laid down by the London 2012 Olympic Committee.

According to the Olympics’ “Food Vision” document, all fish sold will have to abide by sustainability criteria, and that will be the new benchmark for all the caterers that are involved in the games. But it won’t just be for that period — I’m sure it’ll become the new benchmark for big organizations well beyond 2012. At the moment, however, it’s worrying that all we have is a benchmark standard that all food at the games must be must be compliant with. This is supported by the London Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games’ (LOCOG) Sustainable Sourcing Code. For the seafood category, the benchmark says all fish must be “demonstrably sustainable” with the FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, including MSC and the Marine Conservation Society’s “fish to eat.” There’s also aspirational standards, which for fish includes a utilization of diverse species and shellfish to “reduce pressure on sensitive stocks” and demands farmed fish should be raised to high standards of welfare and fed with “demonstrably sustainable” feed.

That’s pretty much all we know thus far, but there are sure to be quite a lot of kitchens that will be quite challenged by this alone. Once the Olympic caterers have been announced, all those guys will really have to focus hard on sourcing fish that they can prove is OK.

London’s Olympic Games are just two years away. As an industry, we need to be letting the Olympic advisors know that if they don’t start talking about the requirements now then there will be problems fulfilling the Food Vision. They have this lovely policy in place, but if they don’t start telling fishermen to catch the right fish it’s likely to fail.

We need to get the ball rolling in order to be ready. Can you imagine the scale of this? If there’s 3 million additional people coming to London for three weeks of the games and each wants a single portion of fish and chips – that’s a lot of sustainable fish to find. And if you want to have a really sustainable product, we need to be thinking about that now, not two years down the line. I’m not sure the Olympic advisors are aware how complicated this is.

What I want to do is bring the fishermen to the table so they can hear from the horses’ mouth what we will need. I believe if we do that then we’ve got half a chance of making sure all this works. However, it remains a real opportunity for us all. I don’t think people have comprehended the impact it could have. I certainly believe it will create a new baseline and there will be no going back afterward.

In your opinion then, given time, will it be possible for all chefs to source 100 percent sustainably?  
It’s important that chefs and caterers have this goal. If that’s your target then you’re half way there.

Two years ago a chef from a certain world-renowned Mayfair restaurant called me in because he wanted help making sure all the species on his menu were sustainable. They were using Loch Duart salmon and Anglesey sea bass, which are top-end farmed fish. In terms of wild, they were using such things as John Dory which has no issues, and Cornish monkfish — again no problem there. The chef was asking questions, which is great. And when we broke it all down he was sourcing the best fish there was. Furthermore, from a sustainability standpoint, he was doing well in terms of sourcing the best of what was available at the time. If chefs are prepared to put the work in like that chef and take the advice then they can take comfort in that they are sourcing sustainably. Finally, they must let the customers know the reason they have sourced those particular fish.

There are people like Silla Bjerrum [managing director Feng Sushi] and Caroline Bennett [owner Moshi Moshi and Soseki] who are really driving sustainability from their restaurants, yet they have two very different ways of doing it: Silla is very much a believer in aquaculture, whereas Caroline doesn’t think very much of aquaculture because of the issue of taking fish from wild stocks to feed farmed species. Silla, Caroline and a number of others are willing to go the extra distance to source and menu something they believe in.

More change will come once the big companies get to grips with the LOCOG criteria and realize that it’s not going away and that their suppliers must be encouraged to stock the necessary products. Those suppliers are going to have to be more proactive, and that will really shake up the industry.

At Seafood Holdings we’re already going the extra mile, and I believe that in the end that will win us friends. When that baseline suddenly gets raised, as it undoubtedly will, many businesses won’t be ready.

From what you’ve said, chefs and caterers are changing their attitudes toward seafood resources. Do you get the same impression from the fishing sector?
On the whole, I think small-scale fishermen on the UK south coast have learned a lot in recent years and understand that if they take care and are mindful of the way in which they handle fish then it does pay dividends and they will get a better premium for their efforts. Part of that is, of course, that catches are down. There’s not as much fish there anymore and they have to maximize whatever they can get.

We hardly ever get to deal direct with fishermen, but we do have suppliers that are sourcing directly from fishing boats. It makes sense for us to use those suppliers as much as possible because the quality will be better. It also gives us greater traceability. But talking to fishermen, they are buying into things like tagging seabass, they are willing to go a little bit further. Once they started doing the bass they realized they were creating something that was a little bit more special.

Similarly, last year we did a great product — herring from Hastings — and managed to get a contract with a restaurant group for smoked herring. It went really well and it meant we could buy the herring from the Hastings fishermen and give them significantly more than they were usually paid. The fishermen found it worthwhile targeting herring, whereas they normally catch a few and just dump them on the market. Again, as with the chefs, it’s about changing mindsets and making the most of the good seafood resources available to us.

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Contributing Editor reporting from London, UK

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