Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Supermarkets Selling Endangered Seafood

U.S. consumers buy half their seafood at supermarkets, spending more than $16 billion every year on these purchases. But without the knowledge of most buyers, many of the fish species offered for sale are in danger of extinction because of massive over-fishing.

The environmental organization Greenpeace is waging a campaign to stop those sales and save some of the most popular fish from extincton.

Greenpeace rates supermarkets on the basis of their policies for acquiring fish and for their selection of what fish to sell.

The highest ranked chain is Whole Foods, and it would be great if other big supermarket chains followed their lead.

Whole Foods doesn't sell shark or bluefin tuna (sorry, sushi fans, but bluefin is one of the most endangered) or orange roughy. And, as I found out visiting one of their stores a few days ago, they are scrupulous about adhering to new legal requirements to reveal, on labels, the geographic origin of each species of fish and whether it's farmed or wild. (Seafood markets are not covered by the new law.) In the case of Chilean Sea Bass, another species that is under heavy survival pressure, Whole Food's label says that the Marine Stewardship Council has certified that the area from which it comes--near Antarctica--is being fished sustainably.

Most of these species whose survival is endangered share the characteristic that they take a long time to mature enough to be able to reproduce. Thus, if they are caught before they reach maturity, the species declines--and rapidly.

Efforts to control overfishing on the supply side have had limited success for lots of reasons, including the existence of pirates for whom fish is the booty of the 21st century.

So, the demand for these species needs to be cut, and that's where the supermarkets and we consumers come in. Greenpeace's ratings show that most supermarkets haven't yet even developed a policy on stocking endangered fish.

Consumers can help with this. You can conduct a survey of your local supermarket and send the results to be compiled by Greenpeace. A toolkit for this purpose can be downloaded from the Greenpeace site.

You can also get a handy pocket guide from the Monterey Bay Aquarium to take with you when you're out shopping. It lists which fish you should avoid and which you can serve up with a clear conscience.

If we all don't become mindful of the impact of our food choices, our children will never know the taste of so many of the fish we eat today. They will have vanished from the earth.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Decoding Food Labels: "Naturally Raised Beef" Isn't

Once again, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has bowed down to agribusiness and decided to define "naturally raised beef" as anything but. The word "raise," you'd think, would have some relationship to how a steer spends its life, able to roam a pasture and eat grass, or confined to a filthy feedlot.

But this new definition says absolutely nothing about the conditions in which an animal is actually raised.

All this term will now mean is that the steer has not been treated with antibiotics, hormones or any substances that promote its growth, or fed byproducts of other animals. It's those byproducts--left over pieces of dead animals--that have lead to worries about mad cow disease, and caused European countries to rightly turn away most American beef.

This "naturally raised" definition, by the way, refers also to pork and chicken.

Critics have said that instead of calling it "naturally raised," the term should have been "naturally fed."

But the rule doesn't require that steers have access to pasture of even the outdoors, and there's nothing natural about feeding corn to cows, which is what they get in those feedlots. In fact, as Michael Pollan pointed out in a PBS radio interview, fattening beef on corn--made possible only because U.S. agricultural policy subsidizes corn production--does terrible things to the cow's intricate system of transforming what should be grass into wonderful milk.

If you want to eat beef from cows that have actually lived a decent life, eating grass on a pasture, the label to look for is "grass fed" with the logo of the American Grassfed Association. That logo means that the animal has eaten only mother's milk, grass or hay for its entire life.

What a concept. Unfortunately, it's hard to find such beef. Only four giant agribusinesses control the slaughtering of more than 80% of beef consumed in the U.S. Antitrust anyone?

What's the solution? Spend more for grass-fed beef, and consider that steak a luxury treat for once and a while. By eating less beef, you'll also be reducing your carbon footprint as effectively as if you bought a hybrid car. You'll be healthier, too.