Sustainability is taking centre stage throughout the seafood supply chain at Loblaw, Canada’s largest food retailer. The company said this week that the world’s oceans face an “unprecedented crisis” and is aiming to change the way it sources and sells seafood throughout its stores. Paul Uys, vice president for fresh foods at Loblaw, outlines the retailer’s plans in this month’s just the answer.

just-food: How does this initiative on sustainable seafood set Loblaw apart from its peers in Canadian grocery retailing?

Uys: The health of our oceans are at risk. As seafood consumption around the world increases and in order to ensure the viability of seafood supply can be guaranteed long term, we need to source sustainably. Sourcing seafood only from sustainable sources by 2013 is an enormous undertaking that will not be without its challenges. Loblaw is committed and believes by our actions we will have a positive influence on the market as a whole, our vendor community and on the health of Canadian fisheries in the long run.

No other Canadian retailer to date has publicly announced a seafood sustainability initiative or their intent to adopt a sustainable policy. In 2008, we were the first major Canadian grocery retailer to offer MSC [Marine Stuardship Council] certified fish. We now offer 12 MSC certified products. As the largest grocery retailer in Canada, it is important that Loblaw takes a leadership position and commits to conserve our marine resources in order to ensure the long term viability of this resource. As part of our continued commitment to ‘Sourcing with Integrity’, which is outlined in our CSR report, sourcing seafood from sustainable sources is an integral part of the way we do business.

j-f: How does this policy compare to other retailers south of the border in the US?

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Uys: Anecdotally, we have been told by some of our partners that our seafood policy initiative is one of the most aggressive in North America. We have also had other grocery retailers congratulate us on our bold and aggressive position regarding seafood sustainability.

j-f: Will the policy encompass all Loblaw’s private-label products and those from its suppliers?

Uys: The goal of the ‘Loblaw Sustainable Seafood Policy Initiative’ is to establish a sustainable procurement practice that focuses on responsible sourcing in every seafood category and categories that contain seafood. This includes our President Choice products, national brands we carry, and products that contain fish oils such as vitamins – to name just a few. As part of our assessment process, we will be reviewing all products we carry to determine which products fall within the guidelines of the initiative to make the necessary decisions.

j-f: How many of your suppliers do you anticipate you will need to change because of this policy?

Uys: Our research shows an increasing number of major fisheries are eager to adopt or have made the transition to sustainable practices. In fact, we have had a number of vendors approach us for guidance on how to make the switch to sustainable practices. For example, we have been able to source all of our MSC certified products from our established vendor base.

We are confident the majority of our vendors will make the necessary changes required by our seafood sustainable policy, as it is the right thing to do. This is very much a work in progress. Over the next four years, we will continue to work with our vendors and educate them on the importance of adopting sustainable practices. For those vendors that are not able to make the transition to sustainable fishing practices, we will look for new vendors to meet our needs.

j-f: How much will this initiative cost Loblaw?

Uys: The initiative is not about cost for us. Our goal is to do what is best to conserve marine resources and a healthy ocean environment.

j-f: How will the sustainable seafood lines be priced at retail? Will prices for consumers rise?

Uys: We do not have a definite answer as to how sourcing from sustainable sources will affect our pricing as we have only started to assess our seafood supply sources. We believe pricing may rise for some seafood but not for all. For example, wild seafood costs are already on the rise as sources are being depleted. In the long run, however, sustainable seafood is in the best interests of the consumer, fishing communities and ocean environment, if we are to maintain the opportunity of consuming seafood. As more fisheries become certified, costs will level out and become the norm for the business. Once we increase our aquaculture supply, this will stabilise prices of wild seafood and we will be able to offer better prices.

j-f: What consumer trends can you point to that suggest Canadian consumers want to buy more sustainable seafood?

Uys: Based on the success of the President Choice organic products, which support responsible sustainable production methods, where we continue to see double-digit growth after eight years and the way customers have embraced other Loblaw corporate social responsibility initiatives such as the use of reusable bags, we believe the Canadian consumer is more focused on a more environmental responsible approach to grocery retailing.