National Seafood Month: Fishing for Progress

September 29, 2015

When the largest institutional food service company in the US demonstrates an important level of diligence to create sustainable change in the food supply chain, it’s worth talking about. This story is especially relevant as we prepare to recognize National Seafood Month in October, a time to highlight best seafood choices and sustainable fisheries.

Sustainability efforts and practices in the food service supply chain are inclined to be focused on land based issues: supporting local farmers, encouraging humane welfare of livestock, protecting our soil. That being said, our oceans and the seafood we depend on from across this vast expanse of natural resources face serious environmental challenges and deserve as much consideration as given terra firma.

Nearly 90% of global fisheries are exploited. Wasteful by-catch practices have reached the rate of 27M tons of discarded seafood annually. Climate change and ocean acidification is becoming a serious threat to many species. Recognizing the importance of our oceans as both a natural resource and the a primary source of healthy foods on our plates, Compass Group committed to ocean conservancy well over 10 years ago and with the same concerted effort as their commitment to land based issues.

The challenge in the seafood supply chain exists in the difficulty of being transparent and in the delivery of precise reporting on sustainable purchasing. It’s no small effort to manage the transparency of a seafood supply chain. It is a highly complicated web of players with raw materials changing hands multiple times, often commingled with those from other sources and originating at possibly thousands of locations around the globe. But, that seemingly overwhelming task doesn’t faze Compass Group from seeking solutions and continuous improvements.

On the Hunt for Precision to Report Progress

At the core of Compass’ challenge to report transparent results of their sustainable seafood commitment is that key data elements necessary to rate purchases against the Seafood Watch (SFW) criteria are simply not passed through the supply chain, making the effort a time-intensive manual process. Over the years, the list of fish and seafood products that could not be rated against SFW was otherwise labeled as “unknown” and grew close to 34% of total seafood volume by weight. This realization in late 2014 became a concern of transparency for Compass. It also became the tipping point for taking action to improve the precision of their sustainability scorecard and to better understand their purchasing portfolio so that they could more accurately manage progress towards sustainability goals.

In January 2015, under the direction of Changing Tastes, Compass launched a project to narrow the “unknown” gap to 20% of their total seafood volume. The core of the project involved surveying top suppliers to obtain key data elements of specific products (Latin Species name; Country of Capture or Harvest ; Method of Capture or Harvest) needed by the science community determine the “sustainability” level of purchases.

The process to gather and review the data was intensely “manual’ and took months to accomplish. But once analyzed by industry experts and the science team at Seafood Watch, the results allowed Compass to re-categorize over 1.8M pounds of “unknown” products to 1.4M pounds rated as meeting sustainable criteria set by Seafood Watch (Yellow or Green). This effort decreased the “unknown” category to 21%, just 1% short of the project’s goal. The remaining “unknown” items are mostly purchased through fresh seafood houses whose sourcing changes from week to week making collection of data from these low tech suppliers almost impossible. Less than 300K pounds were re-categorized as unsustainable or SWF rated Red.

Engaging with Industry to Accelerate Progress

The complex conditions of the seafood supply chain contribute to an environment that is not always conducive to industry unified progress on the health of our oceans.

Under the direction of Seafood Watch and facilitated by Changing Tastes, Compass Group joined as a founding member of the Sustainable Seafood Roundtable whose mission is to purse an industry wide strategy using selected supply chain opportunities that have the potential for greater impact on the water. Convened under a pre-competitive agreement in April 2014, this collaboration of leading companies in the institutional foodservice space set out to develop industry alignment and purchasing guidance on the top four seafood volume categories: tuna, salmon, shrimp and whitefish. When combined, these categories represent 85% of the $8B of seafood sales realized in institutional food service settings. The development of the guidance was also done with the full participation of the Conservation Alliance for Seafood Solutions , a large group of North American conservation organizations working in the interest of engaging business solutions to seafood conservation. Other NGO’s, with a special concern in the tuna fisheries also participated in the discussion.

While the industry focus on purchasing sustainable seafood is typically directed at the wrong fish to buy (species to be avoided), the Roundtable pursued instead a strategy focused on the right fish to buy. In May 2015, recommendations were introduced for purchasing policies and guidelines directed at the top four high volume categories with the strong expectation that these will translate into best practices throughout the supply chain and eventually on the water.

The Compass team played an integral role in this “open” industry wide innovation process, demonstrating a continued commitment to accelerating sustainable progress on the oceans in collaboration with other key industry players.

Achieving Progress through Continuous Improvement

The journey to manage towards continuous improvement and a sustainable supply chain requires a constant and concerted level of intention to find solutions. Compass’ engagement in projects like these demonstrates their prolonged commitment to progressively changing the way our food is produced, giving confidence to their diners that the food on their plate is sourced with responsible effort that promote best practices throughout the supply chain.

A guest blog by Marc Zammit, Changing Tastes , originally published on LinkedIn.