Will the label carry clout?

Alaska salmon have won a unique new label. But in the competitive world of seafood marketing, will it matter?

Posted: Tuesday, September 26, 2000

Alaska has invested heavily to ensure the sustenance of its fishery.

Now, it could be poised for a big return.

In early September, Alaska's statewide commercial salmon fisheries program became the only salmon fishery in the world to be certified as well-managed and sustainable by the London-based Marine Stewardship Council.

This is a sizeable pat on the back. The council has, in effect, held up Alaska's fishery management as a model to which others should aspire, said Barbara Belknap, Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute executive director.

New label won't halt fight for 'organic' status

Let's fess up.

The "certified sustainable" label awarded to Alaska salmon by the Marine Stewardship Council is just an attempt to make the state's salmon fishing industry feel better about losing the "organic" stamp it hoped to place on salmon packaging.

Right?

"No, it's two different things," said Barbara Belknap, executive director at the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. "But they do get confused."

First of all, Alaska's hopes of winning the organic label haven't been dashed, said Kate Troll, fisheries specialist for the Department of Community and Economic Development.

"The verdict is not in on organic," Troll said. "The USDA is still proceeding with organic standards for wild and aquaculture."

She noted that Capilano Pacific, a large Bristol Bay fisherman's co-op, and Prime Select Seafoods, an Alaska salmon and halibut packing company, have been using the "organic" label awarded to them by private firms.

Troll said the Organic Food Production Act of 1990 was to eliminate consumer confusion regarding the organic label. In the case of seafood, however, it didn't accomplish that mission, she said.

"The USDA came out with a set of rules on everything but seafood," Troll said. "They wrote the rules with land-based food production systems."

Meanwhile, Belknap said, the Marine Stewardship Council's "certified sustainable" label doesn't play second fiddle to the organic status. In fact, it incorporates many organic requirements.

Agreed Troll: "There's a little overlap. They both look at sustainability, but the MSC's certification looks at the science and the management behind the harvest and it stops at the harvest. Organic does a review of vessels and plants to make sure they don't come in contact with prohibited ubstances. It makes sure this product remains organic through the food production system."

Certification to use both labels would be ideal, Troll said.

"We want to create two marketing tools for processors (organic and certified sustainable), then it's up to them to decide which is the most appropriate to use," she said.

"Each would help at the consumer level," said Gerry Merrigan, director of the Petersburg Vessel Owners Association.

Jim Humphries , U.S. director of the stewardship council, agrees that organic certification is only a part of what the buying public wants.

"Organic certification has language about sustainability," he said. "Yet review and audit requirements are at a much lower level. It almost throws the 'organic' ball right back into our court."

Belknap said a big advantage to winning the stewardship council's stamp of approval is that the entire Alaska fishery statewide is certified. That means Alaska's processors and retailers may now apply to the MSC for authorization to use the MSC sustainable fisheries label.

However, it is not as convenient for someone who wants to obtain an organic label.

"Joe Blow can't say, 'All my fish are organic,' " Belknap said. "They have to say, 'We're processing them organically,' which isn't easy. It's quite a process you have to go through."

Still, impressive as the new "certified sustainable" eco-label is, nobody is really sure how or if it will benefit Alaska's salmon industry. Will it increase Alaska's share in the world salmon market?

"We think so," said Doug VanDevanter, vice president of national accounts at Trident Seafoods. "But to the degree that that is true we're not sure."

It's not a magic cure to combat farmed fish, industry professionals warn, but it is important enough for the farmed fish community to take note.

"I don't think anyone's suggestingthat everyone's going to stop eating Norwegian farmed salmon," said Ken Talley, editor of the Seafood Trend Newsletter. "But it's important that some of the Norwegian famers are looking for a way to get an eco-label of their own in response to this initiative. You don't know how much credence to put into that, other than they're pretty astute marketers and they keep tabs on the market."

Also, most people interviewed said, this isn't an attempt to make up for Alaska's failure to gain the "organic" status it still covets. (See sidebar.)

However, most believe the "certified sustainable" label eventually will provide an edge in a market that is becoming increasingly competitive.

"Anything we can do to brand our product and differentiate into a positive mode above our competition is good," said Duff Mitchell, president of Kake Foods. "It's lunacy to feel it won't do any good."

Plus, he said, if it can help respond to what he interprets as inaccuracies spread by the farmed salmon industry, all the better.

"The salmon famers tell people not to buy wild salmon because we're killing an endangered species," he said. "When you deal with that kind of filth as a small company and then get to explain, 'Hey, Alaska has a renewable resource,' I applaud the effort."

Making the grade

To be certified, a fishery is measured against a rigorous set of requirements by the Marine Stewardship Council, called the MSC standard. A fishery must be conducted in a way that does not take more fish than can be replenished naturally and does not hurt other species through harmful fishing practices. Secondly, the fishery must operate in a way that ensures the health and diversity of the marine ecosystem on which it depends. Finally, the fishery must respect local, national and international laws and regulations for responsible and sustainable fishing.

"I appreciate an outside entity not related to Alaska that has looked at our resources and said it's not only managed well, but environmentally sound," said Sandro Lane, Taku Fisheries and Smokeries owner. "I'm happy about that. To me that's important."

Fisheries around the world can attempt to be certified according to the MSC standard. The western Australian rock lobster fishery and the Thames blackwater herring fishery are the only others to have received the MSC certification, and they have expanded their markets considerably since winning the certification, said Jim Humphries, the U.S. director of the Marine Stewardship Council.

However, he cautioned, because those fisheries saw favorable effects doesn't necessarily mean Alaska's salmon industry will.

Young but powerful

Alaska began pursuing MSC certification in 1996, before the fledgling MSC was operating independently of its founders the World Wildlife Fund, the world's largest independent conservation organization, and Unilever, one of the world's largest fish buyers and processors. Alaska was actually a test case for MSC's certification process and helped MSC develop its standards.

Having roots in such ecological and corporate giants is a boon to the MSC.

"Unilever has encouraged sustainability of seafood products. It's taken a position of corporate leadership in responsibility," Humphries said.

In fact, by the year 2005, Unilever will only purchase seafood products from a sustainable source, he said.

"Other companies will see the wisdom of taking a position such as that," he said.

Already, many potential salmon buyers have aligned with the MSC, including Whole Foods Market, the largest natural foods supermarket chain in America, Trader Joe's and Shaws supermarkets, and Legal Sea Foods to name a few. Even Carribean Cruise Lines is considering offering MSC-labeled products on its ships, according to information on the MSC Web site.

"Internationally, the five major retailers in the U.K. are all moving toward carrying MSC certified products," Humphries said.

Ultimately though, it is the consumer who will have the final say about whether or not the label is a success.

Will a shopper make a purchase just because a "certified sustainable" sticker has been pasted to the packaging?

"Not without education," said Belknap, the ASMI executive. "But we're lucky that by and large our customer is a more educated, more affluent person. That is important."

Belknap said that ASMI is educating white tablecloth restaurants and chefs. She hopes they will pass on to the customers the importance of sustainability and safe habitat.

"We encourage them to tell a story. It's important to buyers," Belknap said.

Customer awareness is essential, said Humphries, the MSC director.

"We are embarking on a year-long campaign that's directed at the consumers to try and inform them and educate them as to what the label means," Humphries said.

That sounds good on paper, Talley said.

"A marketing blitz will take a lot of money. That will be a problem for the seafood industry, to come up with the money to make a difference marketing campaigns are expensive. But if they concentrated in areas, it could do good."

There are certain markets that already appear tailor-made to the "certified sustainable" logo. For instance, the East Coast, which has had numerous fisheries disasters, is keenly aware of and apt to buy seafood that is sustainable and harvested in an environmentally friendly way, Humphries said.

Internationally, buyers are already much more informed than Americans.

"In certain countries, especially in the European community, the U.K., Germany and others, their citizens are aware of environmental implications and the health and sustainability of the food they eat." said Lane, Taku Smokeries and Fisheries owner. "There has been pressure from the public, and the people who put this together are responding to that request."

Talley, the Seafood Trend Newsletter editor, agreed: "Europeans are very green. They don't want any gene modifications or anything like that. Though sustainability is not directly related to that, it does talk to the same concern."

Some parts of the United States are ripe for such a label too, Talley said.

"You think of big urban areas, Seattle, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, they have a European outlook in many regards," Talley said. "They might take advantage of a sustainable label more than others."

In the U.S. market, Humphries added, there is a rapidly growing interest for natural or sustainable labels in the natural food section.

"The natural foods segment of the food industry is the fastest growing segment," Humphries said. "It has been for several years, and my feeling is we'll see continued growth in this area."

Talley said these niche markets could be a showcase for "certified sustainable" Alaska salmon.

"A lot of these retailers, Trader Joe's and Whole Food Markets, make a point of trying to get food other than industrialized, pesticized, fertilized products that conglomerate retailers put forth," Talley said. "It's a niche right now. How big it will be is another question."



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