Yesterday I had the opportunity to listen in on a press conference led by Pew Environment Group with participating speakers from Pew, the FDA, Oceana, and Consumers Union (the folks who put out Consumer Reports magazine), as well as a chef.
Apparently, farm-raised salmon is a threat to wild ocean populations, and some places where it’s raised cross the line with feed and/or antibiotics, making their product unhealthy for the humans consuming it (not breaking news to anyone in the industry).
The FDA, the speakers claim, does not have enough funding to inspect foreign facilities or even adequately test imported fish.
I kept jotting down “disastrous” figures and waiting for the action statement: Here’s what we/you can do about it.
Unfortunately, that never came.
When Steve Hedlund, associate editor of SeaFood Business magazine, asked what consumers can do, the best answer was, essentially, talk to your fishmonger. “Begin the dialogue of sustainability,” according to chef Barton Seaver.
I consider myself to be an actively green member of my community. I compost, recycle, use cloth bags at the grocery store, CFLs and low-flow everything, always opt for local foods, and the list goes on. Also, I consider myself to be pretty well-educated when it comes to buying fish.
But I have never, ever considered engaging my fishmonger in a dialog of sustainability. And if that has never crossed my mind, then I doubt that conversation is taking place in fish markets across the country.
If you want the masses to make environmentally friendly choices, you have to make it easy for them or make it financially advantageous.
I followed up Hedlund’s question with a specific query: So what exactly can consumers do when they are in the store? Should they always choose wild over farmed, or never choose farmed salmon from a particular country?
With no hesitation, Urvashi Rangan, the Consumers Union representative, replied that this is unequivocally not about wild versus farmed (really? Because I’d choose wild over farmed any day of the week, for a variety of reasons.) Her best example? Hold on to your hat: wild tuna’s mercury content.
Most of these speakers spent half an hour trashing Chile’s salmon farming practices, but then none of them had the cojones to recommend that consumers avoid Chilean farmed salmon or farmed salmon altogether.
But the best recommendation is to “diversify” your fish purchases. Since your money is no good in stocks these days, this should be a fun, new way to diversify your portfolio (or your grocery list). Oh, and you should rely on the pocket guides to sustainable fisheries that are distributed by the Monterey Bay Aquarium and other environmental outfits.
I felt like smacking my head against my desk.
Those pocket guides are often misleading, quickly outdated and actually kind of confusing. Why? Because there are so many exceptions to every type of fish (farmed vs. wild, gear type used, location of fishery, etc.), and fishery management and sustainability changes all the time.
Do they expect consumers to download a new pocket guide every few months, when something has been added to or taken off the list? Because that ain’t gonna happen.
I guess Pew’s effort was geared toward sounding the alarm in the hopes that someone will find it in their hearts to raise the FDA’s funding for inspections. In the meantime, fish buyers, you’re on your own!