This past year I’ve been attempting to convince my family to eat less meat. Although they were a little reluctant at first, they now eat more plant-based foods. They've even been trying veggie burgers and new vegan cheeses (some are better than others) as well as fully transitioning to oat milk and cashew-based yogurt alternatives. However, the one food that has still been difficult for my family to ward off entirely is fish, more specifically salmon. It's true that eating fish is less carbon-intensive than beef or poultry, with farmed salmon generating around 2.9 carbon equivalents per kilogram versus 30 for cattle. Yet, certain populations of salmon are increasingly endangered, and the industry itself has been historically controversial in terms of its faulty and unethical supply chain, harmful aquaculture practices, dangerous biodiversity impacts, and inequitable working standards. To my surprise, it appears Whole Food's Responsibly Farmed Atlantic Salmon has a a much more transparent, well-managed harvesting process with a lower environmental impact than most farmed fish organizations. Still, it is important to acknowledge there is room for continued development in ensuring safely farmed fish that does not border on greenwashing.
Whole Food’s Atlantic Salmon is raised in the open waters of Iceland, Scotland, and Norway. Atlantic salmon can adaptively live in both fresh and saltwater, yet they are highly sensitive to changes in the ecosystem and other habitat stressors. Hence, in order for such fish to be farmed sustainably and conserved, aquaculture standards must be environmentally responsible. Whole Foods raises their salmon without any use of antibiotics, GMOs, synthetic pesticides, or growth hormones. They prohibit added ingredients or preservatives like sodium bisulfite and STPP (sodium tripolyphosphate) that can do damage to human respiratory health. Additionally, all of their fish feed complies with FDA regulations and are rigorously monitored to be the most nutritious for the species at hand while avoiding the use of added chemicals and hormones. The company also avoids carbon monoxide or synthetic colorant or pigment procedures for appearance value.
Each fish is rated “Green” or “Yellow” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium (MBA) Seafood Watch Program. A “Green” certification means the fish is sourced from an abundant catch, a well-managed environmentally friendly fishery method; whereas, a “Yellow” certification entails there are only some concerns with the abundance, catch methods, or fishery management of the farm in question. In addition to this, all of Whole Food’s seafood is Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified, which purports that the fish is responsibly sourced from a sustainably managed fishery. And yet, the integrity and effectiveness of MSC certifications have come under fire for greenwashing certain fisheries’ practices and working more for profit than for safeguarding declining fish populations and ethical working standards. Thus, it would be unfair to automatically assume that all of Whole Food’s fisheries are managed with the environment in-mind.
Whole Foods specifically sources their Atlantic salmon from Kvarøy Fiskeoppdrett, a family-owned Fair Trade certified salmon farm in Norway that was the first to be given the “Best Aquaculture Practices” award in the country. The salmon there have a better quality of life and are more ecologically protected due to the farm’s commitment to strict conservation regulations. They particularly locate their farms in deeper waters which allows the fish to swim more freely and be stimulated by an ecosystem that mimics the natural ebb-and-flow of the salmon’s genuine marine habitats. The farm also employs low-density pens with stringent protective standards to avoid triggering stress in the animals or biodiversity loss associated with disease spread. When fish farms are mismanaged and err on the side of profits over animal conservation, protocol to ensure fish are enclosed and safe are less attended for, causing greater risks of disease and biodiversity loss as fish escape pens and interbreed with wild fish. Yet, this farm has strictly regulated low-density pens that are sited within safe distances from other salmon farms and wild fish to avoid parasite or disease transfer and thus better conserve the target species.
Upon my research of farmed fishing, it appeared many farms utilize copper or zinc-based agents to control algae and other organisms that may deteriorate important metal or netting parts. However, Whole Food’s farms refrain from toxic paints and rather draw upon natural wax treatments that are safer for marine ecosystems. Whole Foods constantly works with farms like this one in Norway to ensure they are monitoring water quality and the health of surrounding ecosystems responsibly with each farm being third-party audited annually to guarantee safe fish health standards. For example, Whole Foods is strict about their suppliers not converting areas of high ecological sensitivity into new farms. They also require that their suppliers do not engage in commercial seal hunts, whaling, or illegal netting.
In terms of the production process, the fish are fed non-GMO ingredients and, once ready, are transported in ice boxes to US-based plants to be processed for sale. Once transported via boat to one of Whole Food’s seafood centers, such as their South Seafood Distribution Facility or Select Fish, a leading processor of sustainable seafood, the salmon is processed and shipped to the closest stores for quality freshness. These seafood facilities are organized under precise US Department of Commerce standards with frequent inspections that ensure proper sanitation, temperature, and toxin-free treatment of fish. And yet, even with these rigorous procedures, Whole Food’s Atlantic salmon is priced at $10.99/lb versus Gelson’s $20.99/lb. I was surprised to see Whole Food’s pricing fit in the mid-to-lower price range as compared to most other salmon distributors. Still, I was unable to find the exact environmental impact and externalities of their transportation sector as well as the specific protocol that makes up their processing facilities. Going forward, Whole Foods could do more to address what they are doing to pursue less fossil-fuel intensive farming and distribution operations.
Whole Foods maintains an elaborate standard in which all of their fish suppliers must upload data and make accesible their farming and transportation records among other important practices. The company has an electronic traceability software to verify that all their seafood products are going through proper standards within the safety, health, and environmental spheres. Because of such a platform and Whole Food’s commitment to responsible fish supply chains, Greenpeace ranked the company #1 in Seafood Sustainability with the highest overall score of 22 US supermarkets surveyed. Whole Foods is also the first national retailer to create their own stringent sustainability and transparency requirements for their fish sources. They continuously cross-check their sources and prevent illegally-caught or unsustainably sourced fish from entering their supply chains. Regardless, Whole Foods acknowledges there is still space for improvement to engage with more sustainable fish farming initiatives like Recirculating Aquaculture Systems (RAS). RAS mitigates the environmental impact of farming fish, drawing upon biological or mechanical filters to reduce waste and water consumption while still promoting healthy water quality through reuse.
With regards to uplifting workers’ rights, Whole Foods launched their Sourced for Good program to collaborate with farms, suppliers, and third-party certifiers like Fair Trade USA and the Equitable Food Initiative to offer support through “improved wages, health care, student scholarships, planting trees to prevent erosion, and more.” Despite these claims, I am still skeptical of the scope of their social equity initiatives and if they are actively working with all of their suppliers and employees to improve wages and protect small-scale farmers and communities. Altogether, I am pleasantly surprised by the efforts the company has taken to uphold responsible fishing; however, I think we always have to be careful in engaging with the fish industry in general, especially when our current certifications are oftentimes lax in the name of sustainability and social equity. For this reason, I have scored the product on the lower side of sustainability as I feel overall the fish industry as well as Whole Foods could be held more accountable to approach conservation and transparency. I would still like to see Whole Foods undertake a less carbon-intensive industrial farming process overall and make larger strides to promote sustainable packaging and energy systems.