Seafood Insight: Bird’s Eye view of sustainable frozen fish
Peter Hajipieris is director for Corporate Social Responsibility at Iglo Foods Group which owns the Birds Eye brand, winner of the frozen food category in the MSC UK awards this year. In 2015, Iglo Group will introduce the MSC ecolabel on packaging of all its certified wild fish products across Europe, including the company’s much loved fish fingers.
Tell us about Iglo’s relationship with the Marine Stewardship Council.
In 2006, Iglo Foods Group was bought from Unilever, which originally founded the Marine Stewardship Council with WWF and since then the relationship remains strong.
Unilever and WWF had the vision of reversing the decline in fish stocks. The reasons given for the decline in fish stocks was mostly because of fisheries management policy failure. The major fisheries weren’t being managed properly. It is true to say that the collapse of Grand Banks cod shocked everyone because it had such a great impact on fisheries and at a social level.
In 2006, the business took a big decision to respond to overfishing of the European cod stocks and encourage them to recover. We went into the fisheries and started to work with industry to stimulate sustainable fisheries development by using the MSC standard as an enabler of change and a measure of the status of a fishery’s stock levels.
We now have a 100% commitment to responsibly source all of our food and the only fisheries sustainability verification that Iglo currently uses is the MSC standard. So we’re continuing the journey that was started years ago.
But what we no longer will do is commit to a specific MSC target because this is a very dynamic area of food production and verification and we don’t control fisheries. But we do source to a responsible level for 100% of our wild capture fish across the group and we hope this will stay that way.
What were the challenges on that journey?
We attempted to find a substitute to cod and so Birds Eye launched hoki as an alternative. but it wasn’t a success because UK consumers didn’t like the flavour. So we then used MSC-certified Alaskan pollock and launched the Birds Eye Omega-3 Fish Finger. It remains the largest and most successful new fish product. In the first year, the conversion from cod fish fingers to the Omega-3 Alaskan pollock fish fingers was 72%, even though people had never eaten the species before as a fish finger.
At the same time, in the background, we supported our suppliers who were instrumental in driving the calls for responsible fisheries management change to encourage the Barents Sea and Baltic cod stocks to recover.
Birds Eye at the time received widespread media praise including from WWF and Greenpeace because this was a sustainable fisheries-linked innovation working in a mainstream food consumption space. If you want to move forward in sustainability – it can be more effective if you innovate. If you scare people to drive a similar goal, consumers will not respond to that as much as positive change.
Now we have gone back to selling Birds Eye cod fish fingers again. Two years ago we introduced MSC cod and haddock fish fingers into the UK market. Just with this two lines we increased the total MSC whitefish volume in the UK market by 22% – that illustrates the love consumers have for fish fingers.
You’ve got to congratulate the Alaskans because they had the vision to certify their fishery and moved a previously under-utilised species into one that is now used across Europe. And it only works because they have been brilliant at providing the right quality and consistency of fish.
What role has Iglo had in influencing the supply chain in Europe?
We took the lead on the cod issue to use MSC certified Alaskan pollock and Iglo then worked with the Russian Pollock Catchers Association (most of the quota owners for Far East Russian pollock) to form the Russian Pollock Sustainability Alliance which is made of fish processing peers and in some cases brand competitors – but we all agreed on the benefits for sustainable fish sourcing. When the Sea of Okhotsk pollock fishery got certified it generated nearly one million tonnes of MSC certified fish in the market place.
These kinds of projects are complex because you’re dealing with fisheries management agencies as well as governments; it’s like diplomacy with fish. But it’s also a fantastic example of how, in sustainable development, collaboration is so important because the formation of the alliance generated benefits for all.
The biggest challenges we all face with such approaches going forward is that some of these fisheries are national assets and the MSC is an independent but voluntary scheme which relies on the market going upstream and collaborating with these national fisheries.
Some national fisheries are wanting to run their own certification schemes but their challenge is how to ensure that they make them credible to the market? –and the challenge for the MSC is to stay relevant and not to suffer from fatigue or become burdensome with bureaucracy. It is really tough to drive these projects – it takes 3-5 years. And the resources aren’t that readily available. There’s a narrow pool of expertise and people to drive them. The MSC is tackling that with tools for smaller fisheries in the developing world, for example.
Bring us up to date with Iglo’s overall commitment to sustainability.
We have a strong brand and sustainable development is a way of doing business – it’s not by accident that Forever Food Together – the next phase of our sustainability programme for 2020 has come about. It builds on the progress of the first phase and today we will focus on three goals that encapsulates our sustainability role in society.
• Goal 1: ‘We will help educate consumers across Europe about the unique advantages of freezing and frozen food to help tackle food waste’
• Goal 2: ‘By 2020, 100% of our innovation will help consumers make healthier meal choices’
• Goal 3: ‘By 2020, 100% of our food products will be responsibly sourced and prepared’
We hope that Forever Food Together will resonate across all age groups, which is why we have made our Captain go green as he will be the lead advocate of the programme.
Goal 3 is where you will find our fisheries certification work and supply chain activity. We’ve taken the view of our total business and fisheries are a sector that are most under pressure. It’s the most relevant to our consumers and it’s the one where we’ve got a lot of expertise and history, which we’ve deployed and directed in the right way. We’re proud of what we’ve achieved and there’s a great legacy that we can call upon. We didn’t start this yesterday – it’s been a long, hard slog and has become part of our story now.
Is complexity in MSC’s standard a strength or weakness?
When you have a consensus-based, multi-stakeholder based programme, you inevitably end up with complexity. The MSC has a large stakeholder community – and one hopes this is a strength. One could develop a simpler standard but it wouldn’t necessarily be as robust and credible within the same stakeholder community.
Fisheries are tough – we don’t understand marine ecosystems as well as we’d like. It’s not the same as looking at a farm with 100 chickens. I can leave 20 chickens to reproduce for next year, and I’ll go back next year and I’ll find another 100 chickens. In a big ocean, there’s a lot going on. We’ve got fantastic science, but we’re not God.
But in terms of rigour and thoroughness, the MSC still remains the toughest standard out there to benchmark against.
The MSC has got to remain cost competitive and it is voluntary whereas fisheries are sovereign assets. We have to respect that – if a fishery decides it doesn’t want to engage it’s tough for us to do anything about it except do what we have always done – use the theory of sustainability change and though leadership. Obviously we do our best to explain the advantages and benefits and we can be more effective if we collaborate with our key stakeholders.
What changes have you seen in the industry over the past couple of decades?
Fisheries were definitely under pressure, particularly white fish and in some fisheries they still are. But the large white fish fisheries have recovered and are well managed.
We’ve got record levels of MSC certified white fish which we didn’t have before and that is a good indicator of progress. In the earlier days of just quality assurance we didn’t take into account overfishing, we focused on freshness, size and quality of the fish.
The volume of wild capture fisheries has remained stable, but illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing is still an issue. The standard of the world’s fisheries has improved, particularly in white fish stocks, they are in a much better condition than since the MSC started, but there will still be some fisheries on the high oceans where fisheries management is weak. That is a challenge still.
Globally, market transformation has been relative to the region. In countries like Austria and Germany, MSC awareness is very high.
What is the biggest impact the MSC has made?
The biggest contribution that the MSC has made is education across the fish industry, consumers and even policymakers around the relevance and importance of having sustainable fisheries. Now everyone is talking about the issue. They may not always agree but everyone’s talking about it.
Consumers rely on policy makers, they assume that someone is doing it for them they don’t necessarily get the detail. Education and sustainability go hand in hand – it’s a learning journey and it never stops.
Does size matter when it comes to trawl fishing?
There are loads of ways of measuring fishing impact, it’s not just the size. At least if the MSC standard is involved, there’s a way of measuring that pressure.
Greenpeace aren’t wrong in expressing concern about trawling. We obviously don’t want to be trawling in areas that damage delicate ecosystems. When one produces vegetables and grains, we’re in effect cultivating the land or ‘trawling’ the land – are we changing it irreversibly? We work hard to ensure that we are not. That could be the case in some parts – in our agricultural programme we take that very seriously around soil erosion, soil compaction, biodiversity.
If there’s a concern around the fishery, that’s why we would prefer to pressure-test it and have the assessment process of the MSC standard measure it and inform us. That way we’re guided on steps towards continuous improvement.
Will we see tuna return to Iglo’s range?
There’s been tremendous success in terms of improving tuna fisheries management in the last few years. The International Seafood Sustainability Foundation has been established and there are MSC certified tuna fisheries now. It’s a pelagic species, so it’s highly reproductive – but it’s a high value species in great demand. We did not target tuna in the same way as white fisheries because our business wanted to invest where we could influence the most – we weren’t as big in tuna as we are in white fish.
There’s sufficient supply of responsibly sourced tuna for us to start that process of sourcing again. It is now up to the marketeers to identify the consumer opportunities. As others have benefited from the work we’ve done in whitefish fisheries, we hope to benefit from the work others have done in tuna fisheries.
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