January 30, 2013

Do You Know Where Your Fish Comes From?

“Alexander Aflalo ’13, contributing writer for The E, came up with the idea for this exposé while doing research for a previous article, ‘Do You Know Where Your Sushi Comes From?” The information collected below is from interviews with members of the college’s Dining Services, comments from different foodservice companies and research into global fishery practices.”

In an article earlier this year I investigated the source of the salmon and tuna found in the sushi sold on our campus. A much greater volume of fish is consumed in our dining hall, however, so it made sense to investigate there as well.

Through interviews with Kenneth Berrier, storeroom manager of Dickinson College’s Dining Services, I learned a great deal about the food system and how we end up with the different kinds of fish that are offered in the dining hall. Berrier job, among other duties, is to order fish and seafood from a food distributor called John Gross & Co., a local company based in Mechanicsburg, Pa. The fish doesn’t originate there, however; the stock Dickinson purchases is bought from different distributors and foodservice companies spread out across the country. And, because fish is literally mobile if it is caught wild, there is varying quality depending on where and how it is caught and which fishery or distributor the fish is bought from.

To help show this point, let’s follow an order from Dining Services. Berrier calls up his contact at John Gross & Co. saying that he needs a certain quantity of salmon. Factoring in price, quality as well as, when possible, environmentally sustainable practices, his contact at John Gross then searches for whichever product matches that request. The fish at our dining hall does not necessarily come from specific sources, but from wherever the quality and price is best at the time. For some products the supply chain is more varied and complex than others.

Pollock, a popular ingredient for fish sticks and imitation crabmeat, is purchased by John Gross & Co. from a company called Highliner Foods, the largest seafood distributor in Canada. This company, based out of New Brunswick, owns several different seafood brands, including Icelandic USA, which is the brand of pollack we receive. Icelandic USA, through Highliner Foods, receives pollack filets from Iceland that are then processed and packaged in Virginia before being sent out to distributors like Feesers, which sells to John Gross and then Dickinson College. Atlantic halibut, which arrives at our dining hall as breaded squares, is also sourced through Feesers and Highliner foods.

The salmon we eat at Dickinson is of the Atlantic farmed variety and comes from two sources, Verlasso of Chile and True North of Canada. According to Berrier, Verlasso is usually our first choice due to its environmentally-sensitive practices, although True North salmon is “certified sustainable.” I put this in quotes because the representative I spoke with from True North could not name the organization that had certified it. Despite this, its website lists several environmentally conscious goals and steps it is taking towards a more sustainable future: It follows a system of crop rotation by moving its fish pens and allowing the ocean floor to rest between crops of salmon. The fish are raised naturally with no hormones. Reliance on marine protein sources has been reduced by 50 percent since 2003. Verlasso, based in Chile, is slightly more expensive, though it is considered to be a leader in the industry for raising salmon sustainably, using mostly vegetarian feed. The tilapia served in our dining hall is purchased from a company called Tropical Products, founded by a native of New England who started a fish farming operation in Ecuador. Our contact at John Gross & Co. tells me that it is a leader in sustainable seafood, which is a big factor when Dickinson College purchases seafood for its dining services. According to the Monterey Seafood Watch, tilapia farmed in South and Central America is in the orange or “good alternatives” section, halfway between “best choices” and “avoid.” It is also on the New England Aquarium’s “Ocean-Friendly” seafood guide. Whether Central and South American, tilapia is actually an environmentally friendly choice may depend on the specific company or fish farm. However, it is generally considered that US farmed variety is better, with Central and South American coming a close second and Asia being last.

Our cod and flounder are purchased by John Gross & Co., which gets its fish from a family owned company out of Boston called Great Eastern Seafood. Great Eastern Seafood in turn buys from four different fish auctions: Maine; Boston; New Bedford, Mass.; and Gloucester, Mass. According to its website, both its flounder and cod are certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council. The flounder which we eat in the dining hall may be either dab, yellowtail or blackback flounder depending on availability, freshness and pricing. The cod is either Alaskan cod or cod from the Gulf of Maine, which, unlike the Grand Banks, is still open for Atlantic cod fishing.