For shoppers, conflicting information about the pros and cons of seafood has given the name "Chicken of the Sea" new meaning.
"A lot of people are walking past the fish case and buying chicken because it's just so confusing to sort out the different messages," said Henry Lovejoy, president of Dover, N.H.-based EcoFish, the nation's leading supplier of seafood from environmentally sustainable sources.
Lovejoy points out that at the same time the U.S. food pyramid recommends people eat more seafood, numerous reports are detailing the dangers of contaminants in fish. "These conflicting messages are far too confusing for consumers to sort out, especially because seafood is just one category out of hundreds they eat," he said.
It's difficult to determine whether this confusion has translated into decreased seafood sales for natural foods retailers. According to SPINS, a San Francisco-based market research firm, seafood sales in natural supermarkets across the country totaled $43.9 million in 2005, up 10.4 percent from a year ago. But at PCC Natural Markets in Seattle, seafood sales, which only make up 1.5 percent to 2 percent of total store sales, have been relatively flat, said Paul Schmidt, the store's director of merchandising. "The positive or negative change in seafood sales can be somewhat difficult to identify at times, since there are so many factors involved—weather, price, availability, etc.," he added.
Naturals retailers do have an edge on their conventional counterparts, however. Chicago-based market research firm Information Resources Inc. reported that between February 2005 and February 2006, refrigerated seafood sales in conventional supermarkets with revenues of at least $2 million a year rose a mere 0.15 percent, frozen seafood sales increased by only 0.59 percent, and shelf-stable seafood sales dropped 3.51 percent.
Industry experts believe in order for seafood sales to truly spawn, marketing must change. But Lovejoy said unlike the beef or dairy industries, the seafood business is poorly funded and doesn't have a strong lobbying presence. "Historically, the seafood industry has been extremely fragmented" because fisheries often specialize in different species and compete with each other for market share, he said.
In addition, there isn't much money for marketing efforts because "it's such a commodity business. The industry works on very tight margins," Lovejoy said. And the fact that there are so many variables associated with seafood doesn't help the industry develop a cohesive marketing plan. "It's the most complex food there is," Lovejoy said. "You go to [a natural foods store], and there could be 75 species of fish in the fish case. All the other proteins we eat are farmed and very easy to control" in terms of how they are raised and how their environment is affected by outside factors.
Subsequently, suppliers are leaving marketing efforts to retailers. The good news is that most consumers are happy to get seafood info from their local stores. According to a 2003 survey by Seafood Choices Alliance, a global trade association for sustainable seafood, 75 percent of consumers believe they don't have enough information to identify sustainable seafood, and 66 percent want stores to be their source for this information. Eighty-four percent prefer that sustainability data be on seafood package labels.
Retailers have several low-cost options to help educate customers about seafood. PCC Natural Markets works with the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program, which supplies cards and promotional materials ranking seafood by levels of contaminants. Schmidt said PCC hands out around 10,000 Seafood Watch cards per year. The store also displays a poster of the card behind the seafood case.
Environmental Defense's Oceans Alive program lists species of fish most likely to be contaminated with mercury, PCBs, dioxin or pesticides on its Web site, www.oceansalive.com. And EcoFish's Seafood Safe program posts independent, third-party testing for mercury and PCBs in seafood at www.seafoodsafe.com.
Santa Cruz, Calif.-based FishWise, a nonprofit developed by the founders of Sustainable Fishery Advocates, offers a seafood marketing package to retailers for about $130 a month. The package includes a local public relations campaign positioning the store as a trustworthy source for seafood, along with test results for mercury and PCBs in fish and training materials to help employees answer questions about seafood contaminants.
The FishWise program also includes data about the level of sustainability in different varieties of seafood and the method and location of the catch. Point-of-sale information, in the form of posters, handouts and package labeling, teaches consumers that seafood is a lean source of protein and contains omega-3s. FishWise Executive Director Shelly Benoit said this multi-pronged marketing approach is important because "consumers want information right there when they need it. They don't want to have to pull out their [safe seafood] card all the time."
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Vicky Uhland is a Lafayette, Colo.-based writer and editor.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 6/p. 42, 44