In 1999, Whole Foods partnered with the UK-based Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) to bring responsibly sourced fish to the world’s largest retailer of natural and organic food. MSC first facilitated a buying relationship between Whole Foods and the Western Australia Rock Lobster Fishery, a group that has been practicing responsible fishery management for over 40 years. According to Accreditation Services International, MSC uses a third-party group to certify that fisheries are addressing key environmental issues such as overfishing and bycatch. The certified fish products carry the MSC seal of approval on the packaging. By partnering with MSC and supporting the ecological health and abundance of marine life, the grocery retailer hopes to ensure its long-term ability to provide its customers with seafood. Whole Foods has offered more MSC-certified options to its customers every year since the partnership began.
Margaret Wittenberg, Vice President of Governmental & Public Affairs at Whole Foods, explained the power of the market to influence environmental standards as such: “If consumers seek out and buy certified, sustainably managed fish and seafood, they are sending a clear message, a practical incentive to the fishing industry that fisheries who practice environmentally sound, economical, and socially responsible fishery management practices will be rewarded in the marketplace.”
By sourcing as much seafood as possible from MSC, Whole Foods hopes to assure consumers that their product comes from a valid distributor. Every product with an MSC-certified label came from an MSC-certified fishery. MSC certification lasts for five years and every certified fishery is independently audited every year.
In the event that MSC-certified seafood is unavailable, color-coded sustainability ratings on product packaging allow consumers to choose the level of guaranteed sustainability. These ratings originate from either the Blue Ocean Institute or the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Green and yellow ratings indicate a good or moderate level of sustainability associated with a fishery. Whole Foods reports that since 2012 they have stopped selling product from fisheries that receive a red rating, including sturgeon, imported wild fish, trawl-caught Atlantic cod, and Atlantic halibut. Additionally, for more than ten years, Whole Foods has not sold vulnerable species such as non-MSC-certified Chilean sea bass, orange roughy, bluefin tuna, and sharks.
Responsibly Farmed seafood standards prohibit the use of antibiotics, added growth hormones, added preservatives, genetically modified seafood, and land animal by-products in feed. Whole Foods triest to commit to these standards and also ask that fish farms take actions to protect water quality, wildlife, and ecosystems. Third-party audits are a requirement for these producers, and the journey of the fish from farm to market must be transparently traceable. Whole Foods’ “Responsibly Farmed” logo appears on packaging for farmed fish that meets these strict standards.
Whole Foods customers looking to buy seafood that is procured in an environmentally sound and sustainable manner can shop with confidence by simply looking at the packaging. An MSC check mark or a green stamp from the Blue Ocean Institute or the Monterey Bay Aquarium indicate that the product was properly managed and that the species will be available for generations to come.