Whole Foods Market Inc. is trying to clear some murky waters for seafood shoppers.
The grocery chain on Monday launched a new color-coded rating program — with the help of Monterey Bay Aquarium and Blue Ocean Institute — that measures the environmental impact of its wild-caught seafood.
The program is the latest in a series of moves by major grocers to change seafood policies as concern rises about overfishing and the environmental effects of certain fishing methods.
Similar to a stoplight, seafood is given a green, yellow or red rating. A green rating indicates the species is relatively abundant and is caught in environmentally friendly ways. Yellow means some concerns exist with the species' status or the methods by which it was caught. And a red rating means the species is suffering from overfishing, or the methods used to catch it harm other marine life or habitats.
The company, based in Austin, Texas, said it is the first national retailer to display such ratings.
Whole Foods said the program complements its wild-caught rating program with the Marine Stewardship Council, a certification program that addresses only a fraction of seafood sold. And it adds to the grocer's farmed seafood policies, which prohibit antibiotics and sulfates and set other standards.
"There has been a huge increase in attention and energy and enthusiasm (on sustainable seafood) from customers and buyers and fishermen," said Carrie Brownstein, coordinator of seafood quality standards for Whole Foods.
Target Corp. decided at the beginning of the year to stop carrying farmed salmon. Safeway Inc. stopped carrying overfished species, including grouper and monkfish.
A number of chains, including Wegman's and Aldi, have come up with new sustainable seafood policies. Retail behemoth Wal-Mart Stores Inc. dropped swordfish, shark and frozen orange roughy last year after cutting other controversial species previously.
After much pressure from environmental groups, Trader Joe's' announced this spring that it would sell only sustainable-sourced seafood by the end of 2012.
Whole Foods also announced Monday that it will end sales of red-rated species by Earth Day 2013. The company has already phased out a number of such products.
These moves are critical, wildlife and ocean advocates say, because about half the seafood purchased in the US comes from retailers.
"The industry has changed very rapidly," said Mike Sutton, vice president of Monterey Bay Aquarium. "When the consumer starts to care, it is the enlightened self-interest of businesses to care."
Monterey Bay Aquarium, considered one of the pre-eminent sources on seafood sustainability, developed pocket guides and cards that help consumers navigate the fish counter. It has distributed more than 40 million of the guides and similar cards over the past decade.
Navigating the seafood system is difficult for shoppers because it involves assessing the type of seafood, where it was fished, the method used and other specifics of the fisheries or farms.
Sutton said moves like this by major retailers and its partnerships with food suppliers such as Aramark and Compass Group can help make a significant impact.
"You can't buy sustainable seafood if it isn't being sold," he said. "The decision that matter are not necessarily the decisions of you and me, but the big seafood buyers."