Whole Foods Market Adds Color-Coded Sustainability Rating Program to Seafood Department

This morning comes a press release from Whole Foods announcing their partnership with the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Blue Ocean Institute and the creation of a “science-based wild-caught seafood rating program.” I’ve posted the full release below the jump and embedded a video explaining details of the ratings system: Green (best choice), Yellow (good alternative), and Red (avoid). The long-term plan calls for: “All swordfish and tuna from red-rated fisheries will be eliminated from seafood counters by Earth Day 2011. By Earth Day 2012, all other seafood from red-rated fisheries will be discontinued with the exception of Atlantic cod and sole, which will be sold through Earth Day 2013.”

I’ve read the material and watched the video and I have a couple of questions. Who is going to stand in front of a seafood case and point to the red dot over tuna steaks priced at $23.99 and say, “Hey, I’d like five pounds of that over-fished tuna whose presence in this case caused the death of 100 sea turtles, please?” Why wait until Earth Day 2013? Just asking. Read, watch, and decide for yourself.

Jump for official press release.

Whole Foods Market® Empowers Shoppers to Make Sustainable Seafood Choices with Color-Coded Rating System Partners with Monterey Bay Aquarium and Blue Ocean Institute to Create Science-Based Wild-Caught Seafood Rating Program; Plans to Phase Out Red-Rated Species

AUSTIN, Texas (Sept. 13, 2010) /PRNewswire/ — Whole Foods Market (NASDAQ: WFMI) today launches the first in-store color-coded sustainability-rating program for wild-caught seafood and commits to phasing out all red-rated species by Earth Day 2013. Through partnerships with Blue Ocean Institute and Monterey Bay Aquarium, Whole Foods Market is the first national grocer to provide a comprehensive sustainability rating system for wild-caught seafood.
Blue Ocean and Monterey Bay Aquarium are highly respected for the strength of their science-based seafood programs. Both organizations evaluate species and the fishing fleets that catch them, based on life history, abundance, habitat impacts, fishery management practices and bycatch.

Green or “best choice” ratings indicate that a species is relatively abundant and caught in environmentally-friendly ways;

Yellow or “good alternative” means some concerns exist with the species’ status or catch methods;

Red or “avoid” means that for now, the species is suffering from overfishing, or that current fishing methods harm other marine life or habitats.
The color-coded ratings offer shoppers transparent information about the sustainability status of wild-caught seafood. Anyone can go online and review complete species and fishery evaluations.
The new program expands upon the partnership that Whole Foods Market has had with the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) since 1999, and the new ratings apply only to non-MSC-certified fish. The MSC is the world’s leading certification body for sustainable wild-caught seafood, and its blue ecolabel identifies wild-caught seafood products that are MSC-certified.

The company’s new wild-caught seafood rating program and partnerships will complement its existing farmed seafood standards, which remain the highest in the industry. Farmed seafood at Whole Foods Market carries the “Responsibly Farmed” logo to indicate that it meets these high standards.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reports that 80 percent of global fisheries are fully exploited, overfished, or depleted.¹ Whole Foods Market’s goal is to work with the passion of its customers, the commitment of its skilled seafood buyers, and the dedication of its many seafood suppliers to help reverse this trend.

Whole Foods Market began working with MSC in 1999 and continues to partner with the world’s leading certification for sustainable seafood, which uses a multi-stakeholder, international market-based approach to provide incentives for fisheries to address key issues such as overfishing and bycatch. A blue ecolabel identifies MSC-certified seafood.

Whole Foods Market maintains the highest farmed seafood standards in the industry and requires third-party audits and traceability from hatchery to market. They prohibit use of antibiotics, added growth hormones, added preservatives like sulfites and phosphates, genetically modified seafood, and land animal by-products in feed.

Whole Foods Market previously stopped selling especially vulnerable red-rated species such as non-MSC-certified Chilean sea bass, orange roughy, bluefin tuna, sharks, and marlins (with the exception of Hawaii-caught blue marlin, sold in Hawaii stores).

All swordfish and tuna from red-rated fisheries will be eliminated from seafood counters by Earth Day 2011. By Earth Day 2012, all other seafood from red-rated fisheries will be discontinued with the exception of Atlantic cod and sole, which will be sold through Earth Day 2013.


  • We at TJ’s applaud this labeling system…we’re working on some similar labels ourselves 😉

    Products that are either “Best Choice” or “Good Alternatives” that TJ’s carries everyday:

    Wild Salmon, AK or Pacific NW
    Alaskan Halibut
    Rainbow Trout
    Mexican Wild Shrimp
    PEI Mussels
    Littleneck Clams
    Maine Lobster
    Domestic Wild Crawfish (In Season)
    Snow Crab
    Sea Scallops

    The most popular “Red label” fish are Ahi tuna, which hopefully will have more sustainable sources in the near future, and red snapper, which is susceptible to overfishing but is pretty well controlled with government quotas today.

    Here is the list of the Green/Yellow/Red rankings.


  • Twinwillow

    I’m curious. Can anyone tell me, at which Whole Food’s was the video filmed at.

  • gavlist

    this is great news. Maybe I’ll quit going to Central Market (which routinely has the worst of the worst offenders in their case) and switch to WF.

    jonfromtjs – could you provide a reference for your comment about red snapper. It would be good to know what “well controlled” means exactly… is the species actually recovering?

  • Twinwillie, I don’t think the video was produced in Dallas.

  • Thanks D for your comment on sea turtles. The new “sustainable seafood” greenwashing launched today by Whole Foods totally ignores that longlining for swordfish and tuna kills sea turtles by the thousands. Or that tuna and swordfish is often laden with mercury two to three times the so-called government “action level” of 1 part per million. We can’t eat our way out of overexploited oceans. We need to eat less and be very picky, like eating catfish and tilapia, not swordfish, shark or tuna. By the way, it is not the “first” color coded scheme for seafood counters. They STOLE the concept from Fishwise in California.

  • Also, to TJ’s “sustainable list” — Mexican wild shrimp????? You have got to be kidding. It was embargoed by the U.S. State Department just this year for failing to enforce laws to protect sea turtles and use of Turtle Excluder Devices!!!!!!

  • gavlist

    Teri Shore – the article says:

    “Red or “avoid” means that for now, the species is suffering from overfishing, or that current fishing methods harm other marine life or habitats.”

    sounds to me like Whole Foods is taking into account that fishing methods like longline and trawling are not good for the ecosystem/environment.

    The mercury issue is important, but differently so. At some level, eating tuna and swordfish is a health risk. So is eating foie gras, or bacon, or drinking beer. I’d prefer to ensure that people are informed and leave their health choices up to them. BUT the choice of eating overfish species, and destroying habitat and bycatch should NOT be left up to the individual consumer.

  • Brian

    Who would stand in front of that case and say say, “Hey, I’d like five pounds of that over-fished tuna whose presence in this case caused the death of 100 sea turtles, please?”

    I would. That tuna is delicious. And, if the price were high enough, people would generally eat much less of it. The fish are not so scarce, however, that the price has risen to deter demand. I am shocked that Whole Foods believes that it can make better decisions about what food I can and should eat than I can. I will stick with Central Market, which generally has superior products anyway.

  • Claire

    Brian, how can you or any consumer possibly keep up with the background or sustainability of every food you eat? It’s completely reasonable for Whole Foods, the company that purchases the food, to know more about it than you and decide that certain products or fish do not meet its standard. People shop at Whole Foods because they believe that the store at least partially shares their values on sustainability, and they are simply trying to address the needs of their customers in this regard. I don’t know what to say about your lack of concern about whether your dinner killed sea turtles unnecessarily except that it makes me sad. However, I agree that the price of fish should reflect its scarcity and the ecosystem damage caused by its harvesting. You are incorrect in assuming that the price of fish is always an indication of scarcity or the health of the stock, though.

  • Brian

    Claire, of course someone who works daily with fish should have a better understanding than I should. I would hope so. On the other hand, a store’s standards may not parallel my standards. And, of course the price of fish is directly related to the difficulty of catching, storing, and transporting it. There is no such thing as a free lunch.

    I am sorry that you are so sad.

  • I’m sorry, eating tilapia and catfish is not my idea of being very picky. I know it’s a good thing to do. But, it sure doesn’t taste that great. I do agree with Nancy, though. Why sell something and then tell me not to buy it?

  • David

    Hi all, before passing judgement on tilapia, knowing that you thirst for knowledge in order to achieve an understanding of where your food comes from, I recommend reading the recent book, “Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food” and also the book, “Hooked”. I eat tilapia willingly over chilean sea bass (CSB), in part knowing that ecosystems have not been damaged. And also because good cooks can provide a very tasty meal with tilapia. The US imports 10,000 metric tonnes of CSB annually, obviously fullfilling the demand in part developed by stores like Whole Foods. The only so-called sustainably certified CSB comes from just 3 boats (!!!), 2 fishing near South Georgia and the other by Heard Island. So, because MSC certifies 500 t of it, does that make you feel good about what the entire CSB industry is up to with the remaining 9500 t that get to the US? The CSB that first showed up at Whole Foods etc were fish older, I’m sure, than you are (and about the same size), but now all those are gone, and along with them the ecosystem function they once served (as large, predatory fish), even in the certified fisheries. This is because longlines, which also rip up 1000 year old sponges and catch huge amts on non-target fish, take the large fish first, because they are they most voracious. All that are left now in these fish stocks are the tiny remaining fish served to you by Whole Foods…supposedly sustainable (of what? the fishing industry?).

  • gavlist

    along the lines of moving toward sustainable choices.. a friend at Kenichi told me that they have eliminated both toro (bluefin tuna) and chilean sea bass from their menu. It would be nice to see more restaurants do this, and to be more vocal about it – a few other chefs in the area also do their best to make good choices (I know that Nick Badovinus is aware, and at least one other chef that I can’t think of right now) and I think that their example could help motivate other restaurants, shops and consumers to consider what they purchase.