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Red Lobster: Sustainability for the seafood lover of the future

Red Lobster: Sustainability for the seafood lover of the future

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Darden Restaurants, home to Red Lobster and Olive Garden, is one of the largest purchasers of seafood. What is the company doing to ensure there will be plated lobsters for the next generation?

Darden Restaurants, home to Red Lobster and Olive Garden, among other chains, is one of the largest buyers of seafood, purchasing more than 100 million pounds of it annually. The company recently launched a new sustainability website here.

Yesterday I talked with Bill Herzig, senior vice president of purchasing and supply chain innovation for Darden, who is responsible for sustainability throughout the company’s supply chain. He says the demand for seafood will continue to increase. The supply? Aquaculture and best practices, he says, will provide the answers.

How much seafood do Americans consume today?

The consumption in the United Stated is 15 to 17 pounds per capita per year. Beef, pork and chicken total about 200 pounds per capita per year when added together. But it’s important to look at what’s happening globally. If you look at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations' projections, it’s 180 million metric tons by 2030, which is a 90 percent increase from 2007. The growth story in the U.S. pales in comparison to what’s happening in the world at large. Seafood is an international commodity. Over 80 percent of the seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported.

How is that reflected in Darden’s supply chain?

When Bill Darden and Joe Lee founded Red Lobster, they took a different approach. Most people go through brokers or middlemen, because the sourcing is so complex. Joe and Bill went right to the source and put some best practices in place. That was the model even in the early stages.

When I got here in 1997 we had 127 shrimp suppliers. Today we have eight suppliers doing about twice the volume. They are leaders in each of the countries they operate in, and they all share information with each other. I like to describe it as “coop-itition.”

Other than consolidating, what other changes have you made?

  • We’ve put a number of species on the do not serve list for all our restaurants: Chilean sea bass, orange roughy, shark, marlin, bluefin tuna.
  • We’ve stopped serving any lobsters over 4 pounds, because the larger the lobster, the more—and the more healthy—eggs they produce.
  • We are working with the New England Aquarium and the Global Fish Alliance to look for opportunities for improvement in the way the fisheries operate.
  • We’re engaged in a few things with lobsters. In the Caribbean we work with AED, in partnership with USAID, to promote more sustainable practices. There’s a couple problems with scuba dive caught Caribbean lobsters. It’s common practice for boats to hire poorly trained or untrained divers, many of whom are indigenous people who are uneducated and have very poor training practices. The consequence are a lot of health problems. They also vacuum clean the resource, catching everything, including egg-bearing females and things that are illegal. So we’re working with USAID and AED to promote changes in those practices.
  • We were also involved with the government of New Brunswick and some Canadian scientists to put together the Lobster Sustainability Trust, which promotes best practices and science and uses some aquaculture techniques to boost production and improve the sustainability of the North American lobster.

Are Red Lobster customers concerned about sustainability?

I would say it’s a bell curve question you’re asking. Some people are really sensitive to those issues, and some people don’t really ask about how the seafood lands on their plate. There’s not a radical amount of pressure, but as people get more educated, more and more questions flow to the servers and the general managers of the restaurants about sustainability. By and large, consumers tend to trust brands, and they tend to trust the Red Lobster brand to do the right thing in terms of sustainability.

I assume you travel to a lot of oceans and fisheries?

Yes.

What’s the most depressing or disturbing thing you’ve seen, in terms of the future of our fish and oceans?

It’s not exactly what I’ve seen, although I have seen some things I don’t like. It’s what I know—and it’s that IUU fishing—illegal, undocumented and unreported fishing--is what led us down the path to putting those fish on the do not serve list. There are a number of species not being managed well. Like any father who has children and grandchildren, I don’t want to leave the planet in worse shape—and I’d like to leave it in better shape—than I found it. Those are the things that concern me the most.

I know aquaculture offers a number of solutions to those problems--like stock enhancement in the North American lobster fisheries--but there's a lot of people who reflexively object to changing anything. Even though [aquaculture is] 3,000 years old, there’s a lot of new solutions, but there’s a lot of resistance to these solutions. That’s another one of the things that concerns me. If you look at supply and demand, we know there will be growth in demand. Where will the supply come from?

How much seafood does Darden consume?

It’s well north of 100 million pounds of consumption, probably 110 million pounds or so this year, and that’s all species. Every one of our concepts use seafood. Over time, that number will grow, so we need to think about the sustainability practices that will be available for long-term usage. We’re not a franchiser. We own and operate restaurants, so we’re thinking, how am I going to feed those 1,825 restaurants day in and day out and year in and year out.

How do you track your seafood?

Unlike most people who buy through middlemen, we go straight to the producer--the people who operate the processing plants and in many cases operate the boat. In many case we’re contracting at the aquaculture level. We also have our total quality people –we look at how the product is handled in the boat, at the processing plant, and all that has to meet our standards. If it doesn’t, we don’t work with them.

What are examples of fish that are sustainable and might become more popular on menus in the future?

Tilapia is a big growing species. Catfish, salmon, trout, all of those are aquaculture species as well as wild harvest. We expect those things will continue to grow. There are emerging species in aquaculture that are in early or mid-stages of development: cobia, turbot, cod, sea bream, Australian sea bass.

When you go to a restaurant that’s not a Darden restaurant, what will and won’t you order off the menu?

I love seafood, so I eat a lot of it, but I try to focus on products I know are sustainable. I eat a lot of shrimp and a lot of aquaculture salmon, but I also eat halibut. I’ll eat grouper during the season. My wife happens to be a fantastic cook. We buy fish at Whole Foods.

Do you fish?

Yes. I don’t do it nearly as much as I used to. I started recreational fishing with my dad when I was 5, but frankly I spend so much time traveling and working I don’t get as much time to fish. I’ve been to Alaska fishing for wild salmon, I’ve gone deep-sea fishing for dolphin (mahi-mahi) and tuna. But it’s a little like golf—it takes a lot of time to do it the way I’d like to do it.

Click here to read Five ways the BP oil spill might impact sportfish.

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Melanie D.G. Kaplan

Contributing Editor

Melanie D.G. Kaplan is a Washington, D.C.- based journalist. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and National Parks Magazine. Her website is www.melaniedgkaplan.com. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure