Fishing for answers

Americans are finally getting on board and heeding nutrition recommendations to eat more seafood. Recent figures from the National Fisheries Institute (NFI) indicate that consumption is up 11 percent since 2001—16.5 pounds per person in 2006 compared to 14.8 pounds five years ago. While shrimp is still the number one choice, species like tilapia and pollock are quickly gaining fans. The good news for operators is that a lot of that eating is taking place in restaurants; most home cooks still feel insecure around a fish fillet.

Although health professionals applaud the trend, the increased demand poses some purchasing challenges for restaurant kitchens. Topping the list: sourcing a sustainable, safe supply—especially in light of recent bans on Chinese imports—while keeping menu prices in line.

Can sustainability be profitable?

While most operators would prefer to menu only sustainable seafood, it’s often been more expensive to source. Sam King, CEO of King’s Seafood Company, a restaurant and distribution operation, is trying to change that. Not only is he concerned about sustainability as an environmental issue, his southern California regional chain of eleven casual King’s Fish Houses and five upscale eateries must have a constant supply of well-priced fish—a challenge as wild stocks dwindle. In partnership with the Aquarium of the Pacific and a group of seafood suppliers, King launched the Sustainable Seafood Forum—a non-partisan organization that advises restaurateurs and the public about seafood choices that are sustainable and affordable. Recommendations are based on three criteria: the fish must be healthy (no mercury or toxins); the fish must be environmentally sound (whether wild or farmed); and the fish must be socio-economically sound (contribute to the local community.)

The recommended seafood are identified and clearly documented as coming from either sustainable wild stocks or environmentally friendly farms that must operate to meet the Forum’s sustainable standards. King’s doesn’t sell grouper, orange roughy, Pacific cod, Chilean sea bass and other endangered species, but included on the “approved” list are farmed and wild salmon, farm-raised trout, shad, whitefish and mussels—all of which can be gentler on the wallet. While aquaculture (especially salmon farming) has taken its hits from environmentalists, “we take a more moderate point of view,” says Matt Stein, chief seafood officer (in charge of purchasing) at King’s. “If the only salmon I served was from certified wild salmon fisheries, half of my customers couldn’t afford to order salmon here. We source from salmon farms in Chile that use advanced aquaculutral techniques to control pollution and improve other environmental issues.”

Conflicting information can make it difficult for operators to make the smartest choices. Bottom line—deal with suppliers who support sustainability and stay informed. “Ask your suppliers detailed questions about their sources, whether you’re purchasing farmed or wild seafood,” suggests Stein. “Find out what’s in the feed, the fishing practices used, how the fish is stored after being caught…really challenge them.”

Steve LaHaie, VP of Shaw’s Crab House in Chicago and Schaumburg, Illinois, consistently follows that advice. Shaw’s now features some fish that are certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council, including wild Alaskan king salmon, wild salmon and Pacific halibut, and many species supplied by well-managed, trusted fisheries. And one of Shaw’s suppliers, Plitt Seafood Company in Chicago, works with area restaurants to get affordable, sustainable fish in large enough quantities. This spring, Plitt contracted with QuikPak, an Alaskan free-trade fishery run by Eskimos, to bring in local wild salmon. “The season was only three weeks long, but the quality was superior,” says LaHaie. It was a win-win for the fishermen and area restaurateurs.

How safe is the seafood supply chain?

The FDA, in collaboration with state agencies, regulates the safety and wholesomeness of fish farmed, caught and/or processed in the United States. But to meet demand, around 80 percent of seafood that hits American tables is imported—a figure that’s problematic when the exporting countries don’t enforce FDA regulations. This occurred in the past with seafood from Vietnam, but the government there has become stricter about standards. Now China is in the hot seat.

In June, the FDA detained shipments of Chinese farm-raised catfish, basa, shrimp, dace (related to carp) and eel because of the presence of residues from non-approved anti-microbial drugs. Although the low levels found do not pose immediate health risks, the FDA erred on the side of caution in light of continuing evidence of residues in samples of these five species. With the fish being checked at port, it will be easier to pinpoint the processors who are guilty of wrongdoing.

While China does have issues understanding and enforcing regulations, not all Chinese aquaculture facilities are breaking the rules. Fishery Products International, an American supplier that does a lot of business in Asia, sources from packers who buy from larger, eco-friendly ponds rather than small mom-and-pop operations. The company also makes sure the processing plants limit environmental impact and conform to HACCP regs.

“Restaurants must make sure their suppliers have a certificate of analysis for all Chinese seafood products. This will identify compounds that are of concern,” explains David Foley, FPI’s director of quality assurance. “A supplier should also have teams on the ground in China to regularly inspect and audit packing plants for HACCP compliance.” While the FDA spot checks exports during processing and at port, more attention is necessary to assure a safe supply.

Are there other health and safety issues?

Warnings about mercury and pcbs in certain species of fish have also made headlines. The main newsmakers are the big, wild fish that have lived a long time and build up higher mercury levels. These include tuna, swordfish, marlin, shark, tilefish and grouper. But the media tends to use scare tactics or rely on old stats, claims Stein of King’s Fish House. To see for themselves, King’s worked with a team of scientists from Purdue University to track mercury in large fish. They blind tested swordfish, shark and ono (wahoo).

“After 150 biopsies, we found that levels of mercury double and triple as the weight goes over 250 and 300 pounds,” Stein explains. “Now we spec a 225-pound limit on these species even though we get a lower yield.” The restaurant group also initiated a guest education program to provide customers with the most accurate, up-to-date seafood information. The campaign draws from the expertise of organizations such as the Institute of Medicine at the National Academies of Science and Harvard University’s School of Public Health. Educational materials include a placemat that illustrates the health benefits of fish and offers guidelines for those who should limit their intake—pregnant and nursing women, children under six and those with compromised immune systems. “For others, the health benefits of fish far outweigh the risk of toxicity from pcbs or mercury,” Stein says.

Green light your fish choices

Opinions as to which species are safe and sustainable differ. Some conservation groups are more radical than others and are quick to put questionable seafood on “red alert.” It’s up to you to get information from your supplier, check these resources, weigh the scientific data and make your choices.

Sustainable Seafood Forum: A partnership of restaurateurs, suppliers, retailers and the Aquarium of the Pacific: www.aquariumofpacific.org/conservation

Seafood Choices Alliance: Affiliated with the Monterey Bay Aquarium; issues a sourcing guide to sustainable choices. www.seafoodchoices.com

Marine Stewardship Council: Promotes responsible fishing practices around the world. www.msc.org

NOAA: As one of its functions, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration protects and preserves marine resources. www.noaa.gov/fisheries

Fish Scam: Sponsored by the Center for Consumer Freedom; provides updates on seafood safety.www.fishscam.com