Safe food choices are difficult to make these days.
Are we still supposed to avoid buying romaine lettuce? No, actually. On Jan. 25, U.S. food safety and health officials declared an end to a lethal E. coli outbreak associated with that leafy green. But just when we got the green light to get our roughage from romaine, Rich Products Corp. recalled approximately 3,420 pounds of its beef meatball products because of a possible listeria contamination.
Speaking of meat, folks concerned with factory farming may be spending extra time in the meat section at the grocery store as they look for grass-fed, free-range, cage-free and pastured options.
Then there’s the politics behind products labeled “organic,” which has turned its meaning into a pure puzzlement. And there’s no end to the debate about whether “organic” or “local” is better.
All of it can be a conundrum for consumers who seek to make a food choice that’s good for their health and the health of the planet.
Shopping for fish and seafood can be particularly tricky. Which species is getting overfished, and where? Is wild better than farm raised? (Both can be excellent choices. Both can also be lousy choices if the fishing or farming methods are poor.)
These same questions that arise while shopping for food are ones we face when dining out. How do we know if the particular salmon on a restaurant’s menu is a sound choice?
There is a guide out there. It’s called the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program. It has been in existence for 19 years and is a leader in the sustainable seafood movement that began in the 1990s. As part of its efforts to help consumers and businesses make choices for a healthy ocean, it offers a free mobile app and guides with recommendations for which seafood to buy and avoid. (Find the guides at seafoodwatch.org.)
If you want to dine out, you can open the app to pull up a list of more than 135 restaurant partners across the country who have committed to serving only sustainable seafood.
There is one Georgia restaurant on the list.
Drift Fish House & Oyster Bar, located at 4475 Roswell Road in Marietta, recently became a partner with the Seafood Watch program. Drift has taken the guesswork out of ordering because every fish or seafood item on the menu is now an environmentally responsible choice, adhering to the “Best Choice” or “Good Alternative” ratings determined by Seafood Watch.
“It’s about not having a negative impact,” said Drift owner Doug Turbush of his decision to become a restaurant partner with the program.
Seafood Watch partners include restaurants, as well as other businesses that range from grocery stores such as Whole Foods Market to food service providers such as Bon Appetit Management Co. It also has conservation partners, including local institutions the Georgia Aquarium and Zoo Atlanta. All combined, its partners add up to nearly 12,000 locations.
Turbush began the partnership process four months ago, sending Seafood Watch a list of every fish and seafood species on his menu, including details about whether it was farmed or wild, how it was produced (trawls, traps or hook and line, for example) and where it was raised or caught. What came back was an evaluation that rated each item as “Best Choice,” “Good Alternative” or “Avoid.” That led to Turbush swapping something like farm-raised salmon sourced from New Brunswick in Canada to one farm-raised in British Columbia because of tighter regulations there.
Moving forward, any time there is a menu change, Turbush will submit similar details to ensure he’s adhering to the program’s guidelines. In addition, he regularly receives emails from Seafood Watch regarding new recommendations and updates.
The cost to participate is $250 annually, but Turbush says it’s worth it.
“Now we have a clear guide for menu selections,” he said.
His staff recently underwent a two-hour training session regarding the sustainable seafood program so that they can better educate guests about the restaurant’s focus on sustainability.
“What makes fish populations continue is that we let them regenerate when we close the water,” Turbush said, handing me a copy of the restaurant’s sustainable seafood guide, an internal document filled with quick facts the staff can use as talking points when interacting with diners.
Drift’s commitment to serve sustainable seafood has not required a change in suppliers. But it has meant asking vendors more questions about the origins of their product.
“When we get business partners who are willing to talk with producers and suppliers about what’s provided and be clear about their needs, that is a huge help and it helps move the market,” said Seafood Watch program engagement manager Ryan Bigelow.
One of Drift’s suppliers is United Seafood, whose clients include numerous white tablecloth restaurants in metro Atlanta.
“When Doug called up, I said ‘Man, finally somebody’s going to take the lead,” said United Seafood co-owner Richard Luff. “Most restaurants talk about the need for sustainability. The reality: It may cost a little more, then they kind of blink. Doug isn’t blinking. He’s helping create a culture of sustainability.”
(Actually, Drift’s prices did not drift upward as a result of the change. Drift already purchases high-quality fish, which does cost a premium. But the cost of a more sustainable fish of the same species is not necessarily higher.)
Luff and his business partner Pacifico Sgambato recently stepped up their own best practices when they created a new position at the company: sustainability director.
Jon Rivero has been at that job at United Seafood for the last couple of months. “Our efforts are to source from all areas that prove to be sustainable and to create sustainable practices,” Rivero said. His goal, he said, is “to build a program that can create extreme transparency from fishermen and boat captains” and share that with their restaurant clients.
Whether more restaurants climb aboard the smart seafood bandwagon remains to be seen.
Lauren Como is a training specialist at Georgia Aquarium. In 2015, the aquarium signed on as a conservation partner with Monterrey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Savvy program. Como’s role as program coordinator for Seafood Savvy is to conduct outreach in the Southeast region. In the last year, she said, she reached out via email to more than 120 Atlanta area restaurants.
“A couple of places expressed interest but none have signed on,” she said, calling it “a continual process.”
The process part of making a long-term commitment to support more sustainable fishing practices is one that Luff of United Seafood also echoed, calling it a “learning curve.”
“There’s so much involved,” Luff said. “We’ve already set the bar internally. Now we want to tell the story more.”
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