Woolworths’ ‘sustainable seafood’ practice very fishy, misleads customers!


It was episode 15 of MasterChef SA, flighted on Tuesday last week, that attracted attention to Woolworths’ communication about its commitment to sustainable seafood.  The TV commercial matched the reality TV series focus on seafood prepared on the beach at Paternoster, and Chef Pete Goffe-Wood gave a brief introduction to the South African Sustainable Seafood Initiative (SASSI), saying that it educates consumers about buying fish responsibly. Woolworths is one of the major sponsors of MasterChef SA, and joins Robertsons as another MasterChef SA sponsor which is not being honest with consumers.

Chef Pete said that ‘green‘ rated fish is in order to buy, while ‘orange‘ and ‘red’ rated fish denotes fish varieties that are overfished and scarce, and should not be eaten.  The Woolworths TV commercial expressed the retailer’s commitment to sustainable seafood.

It was a visit to Woolworths the following day that made me check out the seafood section at the St John’s Piazza store in Sea Point, where I noticed the following:

*  the dominant SASSI poster about Woolworths’ ‘sustainable seafood‘ supply, using the SASSI colour rating

*   About half the fish sold is kingklip, on the SASSI ‘orange‘ list!

*   The ‘Fresh Fish’ department has fish displayed whole, and pre-packed in portions, and has a mix of such packs with and without the sustainability rating on it!  This is inconsistent per fish type, i.e. some of the kingklip is SASSI colour rated, and other packs are not.

*   The colour blue does not appear on the SASSI list, but the majority of Woolworths’ fish packs have a blue sticker. The Calamari Goujons pack I bought had a blue rating, with the heading ‘Fishing for the future’, which is defined on the pack as follows: ‘Our FISHING FOR THE FUTURE’ initiative is your guarantee that the product is responsibly sourced. Blue indicates farmed or imported‘.  It then provides the SASSI cell number for checking on the sustainability status of a fish type, and depicts and defines a green fish (Best choice‘), orange fish (‘Concern‘), and a blue fish (Farmed or imported‘)!

At the Canal Walk branch of Woolworths a sales poster attracted attention to a frozen hake promotion, and this carried the MSC logo for being ‘Certified Sustainable Seafood‘. Nowhere in its outlets does it explain what MSC stands for, and how it differs from the SASSI rating, leading to consumer confusion.

We Tweeted about the visible predominance of the ‘orange‘ rated kingklip in the St John’s Piazza store in Sea Point last week, and received the following reply by e-mail from Alana Jattiem of Woolworths (she did not supply her designation): “Thank you for getting in touch with us on our Twitter page. With regards to your concerns, SASSI has requested all retailers to remove labelling off packs, hence the phasing out of on pack labelling by Woolworths. Customers are welcome to check this with SASSI. Regarding your query on Kingklip, Kingklip is orange on the SASSI list not because of the stock status, but rather because of the impact of the fishery on by-catch such as sea birds. Our kingklip is sourced from MSC trawled hake suppliers who make use of highly effective by-catch mitigation devices such as “Torry lines” to scare off birds and thus, to a large extent, preventing them from getting caught. It should be noted that there are fishery improvement projects underway to make the kingklip fisheries more sustainable and from a retailer side we are asking our suppliers to get MSC certification on kingklip which would be a guarantee of its sustainability.  We hope this answers your concerns & questions. Thank you for your support”.

On pressing Alana for further information and clarification of where Woolworths is moving in its sustainable seafood programme, we received the following disappointing reply: Given the changes required around SASSI labelling on product, we are in the process of revising and rebranding our fishing for the future initiative, which will cover certified products from the MSC, ASC, Sassi green label, and registered fisheries improvement programmes and new commitments through to 2015 . Please expect a full press release and awareness campaign in the next 4-5 months’. A third e-mail to Alana to request further clarification more urgently resulted in a non-response.

Given these disappointing replies, not understanding Alana’s cryptic and acronymic replies, and feeling fobbed off by her e-mails, I checked the Woolworths’ Pantry page on their website, which links blogposts to the theme of MasterChef SA week by week. There is no mention of sustainable seafood for week 15, which focused on seafood, and Woolworths’ commitment to it, as communicated in MasterChef SA’s episode 15.

I then checked the corporate Woolworths website, and under the heading ‘Good Business Journey’ found a lengthy statement about the retailer’s plan ‘to make a difference in our communities, our country and our world’, and its commitment to sustainability across a number of different fields (e.g. fibres, business, ecosystem). The company says it has a comprehensive plan to make a difference in respect of ‘transformation, social development, the environment and climate change‘.  On the company’s internal sustainability rating it scored 84% in 2010, it writes proudly. It then goes on to list all its awards relating to the environment, sustainability and responsibility.  There is no mention of its new ‘Fishing for the Future‘ initiative in this section at all, and information appears dated, with awards mentioned up to 2010 only!

At the St John’s Piazza branch of Woolworths the following fish types are sold:

*   Hake – ‘green’ rated

*   Norwegian salmon – some of the packs have no sustainability rating, others are rated ‘blue’ (with the same definition as the calamari above)

*   Kingklip – ‘orange’ rated on some packs, other packs not rated

*   East Coast sole – ‘orange‘ rated

*   Angelfish – ‘green‘ rated

*   Dorado – ‘green‘ rated

*   Yellowtail – ‘green‘ rated

*   Salmon fishcakes – no rating, and type of salmon unspecified in one pack type, and ‘blue’ rated in another pack type!

*  Norwegian salmon slices – ‘green‘ rated (one wonders why it is ‘green’ when its fresh Norwegian salmon is ‘blue‘ rated?

*   Smoked snoek – no rating

*   Mackerel – no rating

*   Snoek and haddock fishcakes – ‘blue‘ rated

*   Pickled fish – ‘blue‘ rated, even though its hake content is ‘green’ rated!

*   Haddock fishcakes – ‘green‘ rated

*   Smoked kippers – ‘blue‘ rated

*   Smoked trout – some packs ‘blue’ rated, others not at all!

*   Frozen lobster tails, half shell scallops, black tiger prawns, and ‘prawn meat packs are all not rated!

*   Lightly smoked mackerel – ‘blue‘ rated, plus has a confusing green logo to show it is high in Omega 3, and a blue MSC certification logo

*   Lightly smoked hake fillets – ‘green‘ rated, and blue MSC logo.

On the SASSI list snoek, West Coast lobster, as well as Alaskan salmon are green rated. Deep-water and shallow-water hake, kingklip, king mackerel (line fished), prawns, East Coast rock lobster (hand collected), Atlantic salmon, sole, and yellowtail farmed in sea cages are all orange rated.  Norwegian salmon, of which Woolworths sells a large quantity, does not appear on the SASSI list.

MSC stands for Marine Stewardship Council, an international organisation that conducts audits of sustainable seafood from catch, to supermarket sales, to restaurant presentation. Nowhere in the Woolworths stores is any information provided about MSC, or is the abbreviation defined, other than two fish types having the MSC eco-label. At St John’s Piazza branch I noticed a second poster, with the three colours Woolworths is using, adding blue to denote ‘farmed or imported, not listed by SASSI‘, being downright dishonest and confusing to consumers in making it appear that ‘blue’ may be a SASSI rating, in that it contains SASSI’s name, cell number, and website address, but makes no mention of MSC! The poster concludes that Woolworths’ ‘fish and seafood is responsibly sourced, legally caught, has full traceability’. This poster is smaller than the one at the top of our blogpost, and is not visible to shoppers buying the pre-packaged fish on the opposite shelf, as they would have their back to both posters!  The staff member at the fresh fish department could not answer any questions, and said she only started working at this Woolworths  branch yesterday!

It appears that Woolworths is at early steps of becoming sustainable as far as its seafood supply goes, and has jumped the gun in creating a TV commercial in this regard, in not being able to practice what it preaches in the ad! It needs to be consistent in labelling all its fish products in store. Fish stock sustainability is not only a South African issue, but also an international one, and therefore creating a ‘blue‘ rating is irresponsible (because it does not exist on the SASSI rating system), and labelling all imported products into this rating is too, as imported fish varieties need to be responsibly eaten too!  It is deceiving consumers to use the ‘blue’ rating, to make them think that it is in order to buy these fish products. While I personally love kingklip, Woolworths should discontinue its supply of this endangered fish variety, as well as all its other ‘orange‘ fish types, in order to remain true to its ‘sustainable seafood’ commitment! Currently it is a fishy and confusing  consumer con!

POSTSCRIPT 3/7: Impressed that Woolworths has called (what a bubbly and friendly media person Babongile is!), and has invited me to a meeting to discuss the blogpost with them next week.

Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter:@WhaleCottage

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13 replies on “Woolworths’ ‘sustainable seafood’ practice very fishy, misleads customers!”

  1. Nice article – thank you for bringing attention to this crisis. I call it a crisis because that’s what the world’s fish stocks are undergoing at the moment.

    In my personal opinion, it is no longer OK to buy seafood at all. Retailers are invariably dishonest about where they get their fish and very often, what kind of fish it is (re Fruit & Veg scandal from a couple of weeks ago). You can’t trust anyone, not even that trusted brand Woolworths.

    The good news regarding seafood is that it’ll take just 15 years for fish stocks to recover if we reverse our behaviour now.

    That means that consumers need to wield power by not buying seafood. Support the local line fisherman if you must – they are suffering most from this criminal situation.

    Lobby government to stop doing business with greedy corporations.

    Thank you.

  2. Not the Alana Jattiem that was the cause of the largest exodus from a media company’s webforum in South Africa’s history?


    You would think that such a large company as Woolworths would do a background check?

  3. It’s not the local fishermen that will rape & pillage your fish stocks. It’s the Spanish & Chinese as they’ve already done to the rest of the world. The SA Government MUST assemble & forcefully use, a significant fisheries protection force, employing both airborne & seaborne assets. Without that political & military will, your stocks will be totally depleted within 10 years.
    I speak from the bitter experience of what the French & Spanish have done to our UK fisheries.

  4. Very interesting DF!

    Woolworths have invited me to a meeting next week, to discuss the blogpost, so I’ll give you feedback then.


  5. Thank you Nick.

    Yes, this is an international problem. Good on SASSI for tackling this locally and MSC internationally. It’s a shame that Woolworths is not more responsible in its fish type offering.


  6. errm, I was also a big supporter of the 3 generation day boat linefisherman.Until I found out that they are as irresponsible as ever…

    With quotas being implemented as to how many of each specific fish allowed to be caught, what happens now is that the dayboat spends the entire day fishing whatever they want, selecting the 2 or so largest fish of each variety and ditching the rest back into the water dead before the boat reaches the harbour.

    hardly a solution,I would rather all that fish was sold and eaten.

    I still wonder how SA can have a fish crisis when we are hardly considered a “fish eating country” when compared to european countries who all consume millions of tons more than us each? Where have all our fish gone? Why are we still exporting when we have a crisis domestically? That is the real solution in my opinion. Stop the exports and consume locally and by default stocks will address themselves in the near future.

  7. Its us again paying the price as usual.
    Orange Roughy –was once caught locally… in profusion and entire stock exported to Europe without hitting the local distributors. SASSI is a SCAM foisted on the public who have no choices anyway. The Chinese, Taiwanese, Spanish and the Japs are pillaging our seas and have been for years. But SASSI is foisted upon the hapless consumer to pay for the sins of others.
    Look at Monkfish (aka Fake Crayfish the type most of the Tourist restuarants would cover in sauce and pass it off as “Crayfish cocktail”) well it’s a SASSI green and you know what the distributors won’t stock it. Why? The fishing industry is corrupt and we are all being taken down the garden path having to make do with inferior fish and placed on a guilt trip by SASSI . Stuff SASSI.

  8. I would love to hear more about your thoughts on SASSI, and why you write this.

    Who is funding SASSI? Other than the consumer, which industry players is SASSI benefiting?


  9. Think one should note that while Woollies seafood has a few red herrings in its offering compared to the current retailer landscape in South Africa they pretty good.

    Their blue label in my opinion is a cheap route out of their responsibility – farmed prawns from India or Vietnam for example have an atrocious environmental track record- yet they happily sold with a blue label attached which innocently says “imported or farmed”.

    Neglects to mention agricultural fertiliser, huge doses of antibiotics, toxic ground water, indiscriminate clearing of mangrove swamps and the toxic waste land that gets left behind form unregulated 3rd world prawn farming?

    Read the comments about SASSI with interest, whilst their system isn’t perfect if you took it away what would you have – take the clock back ten years to when all the red listed line fish were sold with impunity around SA?

    They certainly have increased the awareness about sustainable seafood.

    Rapacious retailers will always look for loopholes to make a buck, can’t hold SASSI responsible for ethically challenged retailers.

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