Whole Foods: Don't Eat That, Eat This

Whole Foods fish coding system

"Don't eat that halibut! It's a code red!" It sounds strange now, but it might become a familiar refrain soon enough. Color-coded seafood is about to hit store shelves—at least in Whole Foods, which is launching the first in-store color-coded sustainable seafood rating program this week. Created in conjunction with Blue Ocean and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the system relies on three colors—green ("best choice"), yellow ("good alternative"), and red ("avoid")—to alert customers about overfished species.

For now, at least, Whole Foods allows customers to buy seafood from red-listed fisheries. But the store claims that it will eliminate red-listed swordfish and tuna by Earth Day 2011, and all red-listed seafood will be cut from store shelves by 2012.

Whole Foods' campaign has the potential to make an impression on consumers who might never have thought about the sustainability of their seafood choices. The chain is ranked as the ninth largest food and drug store in the U.S, with $8 billion in sales in 2009.

So while it's true that Whole Foods caters to a specific niche of health-conscious customers with money to burn, the chain still wields considerable power over its suppliers.

If Whole Foods wants to eliminate red-listed seafood, suppliers will listen—especially since chains such as Walmart and Trader Joes are also phasing out overfished species. At the very least, the color-coded program has the potential to nudge customers who want to eat sustainably but don't know how to start.

Ariel Schwartz can be reached on Twitter or by email.

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  • Melissa Andersen

    I agree with Sean about it being a confusing approach. Honestly I'm even more turned off to Whole Foods after reading this article. What this does is tell me that I would be paying more for food that I could get at a more locally oriented grocer to support a company that buys things simply to tell you to avoid them. Well! They are already bought by YOU, Whole Foods. If we as consumers decide to take you suggestion and not purchase these over fished fish then you throw them out and go by more from the same source that is overfishing them! The fisheries aren't losing any money over it and therefore not inclined to stop.

    I feel Whole Foods would be better announcing that they will no longer carry any of the foods marked "avoid" and only carry those foods color coded greed and yellow and maybe even have an easily update-able board at the seafood counter with the fish that they are not carrying and why.

    Thanks for a great post ,Ariel! And thanks, FC! You make me feel more educated.

  • Sean

    They've taken quite a curious approach to product-marketing, there - marking something they sell, with a label, "Avoid"? Are we supposed to call that "novel"?

    I can see what they may be intending to do with it, though - namely, passing the responsibility on to the consumer, as for whether the consumer will buy that fish that Whole Foods has already bought from somewhere else.

    I think it's neat to hear about, on the FC side, and well reported, of course - and I think that it's a confusing approach they've taken.

    If there's any kind of name to it, I think I'll call it, "One more reason to avoid that brand of specialty shop" - honestly. I really enjoy not having to make deep ethical decisions when I'm shopping for foodstuffs.