Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A Look Back at the Pocket Sushi Guides

Back in October a trio of ENGOs simultaneously released guides to sustainable sushi. Our friend over at the National Fisheries Institute did a Q&A with Intrafish on the guides a few weeks back, and we neglected to share it with you. The dialogue is below:
Even if the guide’s aren’t perfect, isn’t it good it keeps people away from the worst-fished species – or at least gets them talking about seafood and sustainability?

The imperfection of the guides and the competing number of them could have the very real possibility of driving confused consumers away from healthful and in many cases sustainable seafood. Monterey Bay Aquarium's guide was released on October 22nd and lists Alaska pollock in its “Best Choices” column. On October 9th, Greenpeace announced people should not eat Alaska pollock because it is "on the verge of collapse." (Alaska pollock was also featured on Greenpeace's “red list” back in June.) Meanwhile, the messages these guides and lists give go beyond sustainability. The environmental lobbying organizations that produce them often stray into giving health advice, which is outside their purview. And the advice they offer in that realm is as confusing and even contradictory as some of the sustainability messages we see. For instance, the very first fish on the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Best Choices list is "Aji." If they then read the legend, consumers will notice the asterisk next to this specie corresponds with a message to "limit consumption due to concerns about mercury or other contaminants." So, is it the best choice or should I be limiting my consumption? What's more, consumption limits with regard to mercury apply only to pregnant women, women who may become pregnant and small children.

Who can provide the proper oversight to bring uniformity to the guides? Who will pay for all this oversight and checking?

NOAA is a good start when it comes to an agency that could provide uniformity and oversight to these types of guides. And as far as who will pay for all of this oversight and checking-- you will and quite frankly already are. NOAA already has a dynamic, constantly updated Web site called FishWatch that gives consumers the latest on the status of the stocks. It is a great tool and is one that we would hope will receive more attention and resources and be able to reach a wider audience.

Are these guides really that influential? How many times have you seen someone pull one out at a restaurant?

When it comes to healthy food choices, guides that have the potential to misinform and confuse consumers should not be written off. Americans only eat 16.3 lbs of seafood a year when doctors and dietitians suggest we should eat closer to 39 lbs for optimum health. Guides that are misinformed and create impediments to seafood consumption, even if well meaning for environmental reasons, can impact public health and should be thought of that way.

Is the objection to the guides in general, or just the number of them available? Should there be just one or two “official” guides? And whom should put them out?

Guides that are printed and folded and tucked away in your pocket or wallet cease almost immediately to keep up with the changing nature of seafood stocks. Some stocks are up, some are down, some run into sustainability challenges, while others should be heralded for their successes. But the card in your wallet stays the same. Guides like these are not created with the input and expertise of the seafood community. Watermen and women are the true stewards of sustainability and should be consulted on projects of this nature, but are not.

Additional Comments from NFI

The advice we see from environmental lobbying groups is sometimes confusing and contradictory, and has a potentially detrimental effect on public health. These efforts are arguably most misguided in that they seek to boil sustainability down to a neat wallet card or a handy list. This is an unrealistic and improper goal because it ignores the three facets that must be considered in order to truly assess sustainability; (in alphabetical order) economic, environmental, social. Cards that distill the sustainability story of any one species down to a list or a ranking rarely take in to account all three considerations and therefore fail in their goal.

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