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How Safeway Ended Up Selling Cheap, Responsibly-Caught Store Brand Tuna

The supermarket giant isn’t where you might expect to find some of the most sustainably harvested fish around, but through its market muscle, Safeway has been able to force its suppliers to adjust their practices and give its customers better tuna for less money.

How Safeway Ended Up Selling Cheap, Responsibly-Caught Store Brand Tuna
Tuna via Shutterstock

Organic and sustainable food products are usually more expensive than their conventional counterparts. Sure, there are farmer’s markets that sell dirt-cheap organic produce, but you generally expect to pay more for pasture-raised beef, responsibly-caught fish, and hormone-free milk. The key to making sustainable food cheaper is scaling up–something that can be impossible for small, family-run farms. But what if a large, unsustainable producer could be convinced to change their practices?

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That’s what happened in the canned tuna industry, where grocery store chain Safeway convinced a supplier to ditch the use of fish aggregating devices (FADs)–essentially giant lures that bring all kinds of sea life (including endangered species) into nets. FADs can lead to overfishing and bycatch of species like sharks and sea turtles. Thanks to Safeway’s efforts, a 12 ounce can of Safeway Select skipjack tuna –now FAD-free–is 51 cents cheaper than Bumble Bee tuna.

A year and a half ago, Safeway started meeting with nonprofits, including Greenpeace, Fishwise and the Earth Island Institute, to figure out how to more sustainably sourced store-brand tuna–part of a larger company move towards sustainable seafood that began half a decade ago. “We have a real commitment to what we would describe as the democratization of previously unaffordable experiences,” says Joe Ennen, Senior Vice President of Consumer Brands at Safeway. “We can make things available to a much broader swath of people. Think of where organic was a decade ago and what we’ve been able to do with the O Organics brand. We have made organic food affordable for a dramatically larger percentage of the population.”

But sourcing from fisheries that don’t rely on FADs isn’t easy, as Safeway quickly discovered. “I thought it was going to be as easy as the virtual shopping cart. I thought I could knock on [Don Davidson, Safeway’s Vice President of Strategic Sourcing]’s door and say ‘buy this.’ We searched high and low for suppliers, and literally had to a find supplier who would commit to changing some of their practices in order to meet the Safeway volume,” says Emily Miggins, Senior Manager, Sustainability in Strategic Sourcing at Safeway.

That volume–not too large, not too small–was key to Safeway’s success. “One of the reasons we were able to move is that our volume is of such that it’s manageable, meaning it’s not so large that we command such a huge market share that it’s like moving the oceans,” explains Davidson. At the same time, Safeway’s market volume is big enough that the company was able to convince a supplier to change its practices. As a result of the sourcing changes, 4.5 million cans of Safeway tuna will be FAD-free.

Now imagine if every grocery store committed to sustainable store-brand tuna. Then, says Davidson, “it becomes more economically efficient for all.”

This isn’t the end of Safeway’s seafood changes. Next, the company will work on more sustainable albacore tuna. “You have to really ask for it, go at it transparently, and show the fishermen and the suppliers that you mean business. That’s what we will be doing,” says Miggins.

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About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more

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