Adventures in Sustainability at Whole Foods’ Fish Counter


Whole Foods cloaks itself in a veneer of eco-virtuousness, patting itself on the back for selling some local produce and certified humanely raised meat, giving customers the comfortable feeling that they’re somehow doing the world a favor by shopping there.

But when it comes to the fish counter, Whole Foods is not practicing what they preach: Though the store stocks better choices like frozen, relatively affordable Gulf shrimp and wild Alaskan salmon, it also blithely peddles Atlantic cod and sole, which are perilously overfished.

Last night, surveying the fish counter at the Columbus Circle Whole Foods, I noticed that the store has started placing small red, yellow, or green circles corresponding to each fish’s Monterey Bay Seafood Watch designation of avoid (red), good alternative (yellow), and best choice (green).

Update: See Fork in the Road’s challenge to Whole Foods to stop selling severely overfished species.

Because it is a nonprofit that doesn’t benefit from certifying fish as good choices, Seafood Watch is probably the most credible of the organizations tracking fish populations. And the new Whole Foods labeling is a helpful device if you are already aware that there are some fish to be avoided and you can’t remember which is which.

But in the bigger picture, it’s a cynical move, a dodge. Displaying the Seafood Watch labels while still selling the species designated “avoid” is having your fish and eating it, too: “Look, we’re so concerned about sustainability! That’ll be $10 a pound for the cod.” No less than three people ordered red-marked species while I was standing there — not everyone has the time or the inclination to read the labels and the key.

It is almost as bad as Nobu, which refuses to stop serving endangered bluefin tuna, instead placing this note on the menu at their London locations: “Bluefin tuna is an environmentally threatened species. Please ask your server for an alternative.”

It can’t always be about customer demand — sometimes stores like Whole Foods, which profit from their seeming virtues, should step up and actually do the right thing instead of making a meaningless gesture toward the right thing. There’s a whole host of delicious seafood that Seafood Watch designates as green or yellow, and Whole Foods could be introducing their customers to it, instead of dedicating the majority of the space on their fish counter to species that are overfished.