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New online resource allows Canadians to compare retailers’ seafood sustainability practices

The Vancouver Star with Sarah Foster 04 June 2018

Canadian consumers have a chance to know how seafood retailers are living up to their sustainable commitments thanks to a new online resource, Seafood Progress, which launched on Monday.

Retailers can “do better” by providing information to the public and supporting improvements to fisheries and farms, despite the fact that all have promised to protect the world’s last wild food source, said Sarah Foster, national manager of SeaChoice, the environmental NGO that created the tool.

“Corporate social responsibility is absolutely moving forward toward more transparency for the consumer,” Foster told StarMetro in a phone interview.

Consumer interest in sustainable seafood has spiked over the last decades. Now, Canadians can determine if their favourite places to shop are taking action to improve some of the most unsustainable fish consumers eat, a news release stated.

By compiling publicly available information from nine major retailers as a national average — including Loblaws, Buy-Low Foods and Walmart — the group used 22 performance indicators against six steps forming the vision for sustainable seafood, developed by NGOs across North America.

SeaChoice also reached out to individual retailers: Some chose to disclose further, while others did not.

The group’s report noted six actions for retailers, such as regularly publishing how much seafood is in line with their commitment and increasing guidelines for social responsibility.

But many retailers told SeaChoice that they don’t have sufficient market leverage to make changes, particularly with globally traded commodities such as farmed shrimp, skipjack tuna or farmed Atlantic salmon, all of which the group suggests consumers avoid.

Four of the retailers have not publicly disclosed information and only two have social responsibility plans with a credible international standard, the report noted.

“If retailers are going to sell some of the more unsustainable seafood products available in Canada, they should be taking action to improve fisheries and farm practices,” Foster said. “They should be collecting pertinent data like the species type and country of origin.”

Roughly 60 per cent of seafood was “poorly labelled,” the report found. That’s because according to Canadian law, retailers need only provide common names and the last country of major processing, Foster said.

But common names are opaque compared to scientific-species names.

“There are some that represent 300 species,” she explained. “Some of these are sustainably caught or facing significant challenges.”

And the country of last processing is an issue, Foster added.

“There is no legislation that says you need to be told that,” she said, pointing to the example of sockeye salmon that is caught in Russia and shipped whole, and is then marked as Canadian, since it is the last major point of processing.

This is in stark contrast to the European Union — which requires a scientific name, geographic origin and country of processing. And as the seventh-largest global seafood exporter, Foster said Canada already specifies that information for fish landing in Europe.

“We aren’t giving this info to our consumers at home,” she explained. “The retailers have more info than they’re disclosing to the consumer in their labelling.”

But imported food is less sustainable and nearly one-third can’t be ranked because the seafood is not traceable from boat to plate and is poorly labelled, Foster added.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) was unable to comment in time for publication. But the website noted that labelling is voluntary, provided it is “truthful and not misleading.”

In response to decades of calls to update labelling laws, the agency began public consultations as part of its Food Labelling Modernization Initiative in 2013, the most recent of which wrapped up in February of this year.

Of several proposals, one highlighted the origin of imported food and the CFIA suggested the “country of origin being where the last substantial transformation of food occurred.”

But a number of consumers said the proposal does not go far enough, and distinguishing between the country of processing and origin is essential, the website read, particularly when multiple locations are used.

Results from the labelling initiative are expected in the spring of 2019, according to the government website.

Some retailers are rising to the challenge by supporting improvements for certain products. For instance, Buy-Low Foods does not sell farmed Atlantic salmon because of environmental concerns, the release stated.

“Delivering a sustainable seafood program is no small feat,” said Jennifer Lambert, senior manager of sustainability at Loblaw. “Retailers today need a comprehensive approach that accounts for the health of fish stocks, environmental impacts of fisheries, changes to aquaculture and a wealth of certification options.”

Foster said the group will present further recommendations to individual retailers in the near future. Plans are to use Seafood Progress as a baseline for annual reviews.