March 9, 2011

Costco Hearts Fish, the Oceans

Well, that might be overstepping things a bit, but good to see Costco taking positive steps on what is really an extremely important issue, one that most people know little about: the depleting ocean stocks of a growing number of fish.

Under pressure from environmentalists, the retail giant Costco has said it would immediately halt the sale of a dozen fish species widely considered to be threatened by overharvesting.

Among the fish being pulled from display cases are Atlantic cod, Atlantic halibut, Chilean sea bass, grouper, monkfish, redfish, swordfish and bluefin tuna. Sales of these and other at-risk species will not resume until a sustainable source can be identified, the company said in a statement.

This is a significant event. Costco is a big purveyor, and while they are still only one big fish in a much, much  larger retail ocean -- excuse the stale literary device -- this is as big win. Greenpeace and Casson Trenor had a lot to do with it, so they deserve major props as well.

Which brings me back to something almost two months old at this point: Wal-Mart's announcement that it's going to reduce levels of salt, sugar, unhealthy fat in the processed foods it sells and lower prices on  fruits and vegetables, and try to open stores in so-called food desserts (places, typically poor urban areas, where there aren't any real grocery stores).

Now, I'm as big a Wal-Mart hater as they come. And I'm skeptical of any announcement by a big corporation that would seem to put the public good ahead of profits. But the response to this announcement by those from the sustainable ag world seemed to me, at least, to be particularly jaded.

A representative example? I give you the esteemed Marion Nestle:

Whether these initiatives will do anything for health remains to be seen.  They will certainly put pressure on other suppliers and stores to tweak their products. I don’t think that’s good enough.

Yes, we'll have to wait and see exactly what transpires moving forward. How much of this is PR and how much is bona fide good will.

And it wasn't the doubt that this is anything more than a PR stunt that struck me. It was the pervasive "it's not good enough" response. Really? Not good enough? Wal-Mart could do absolutely nothing, and just continue on in its evil ways, or it could do something that just might make fresh fruits and veg more affordable and make processed foods a little healthier.

There is every right to be skeptical, but to me, in this instance, the consistency of the incredulous responses seemed to be misguided. Perhaps I'm being too naive. But it would be nice, and perhaps even help to ensure it is more than just a PR stunt, if the response was: "This is a really good start. We'll hold your feet to the fire to make sure your actions back up your words, but we welcome you to the table."

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