I have always found fish to be the most confusing of all the different food categories when it comes to what to buy. I hear so much information, (some of it conflicting) about so many different types of fish, and then I get to the grocery store and I am like a deer in headlights trying to sort out the best fish to buy. Is it overfished? Wild caught? What is the mercury content? Is it labelled correctly? What country did it come from? Is it genetically modified? Is it on the sustainable fish list? It is enough to make your head spin, and actually I stopped buying fish from grocery stores for several years because I just couldn’t figure it out. (I was still buying fish from a fish monger at our local Farmers Market whenever I got a chance.)
Everything changed for me this year on January 19th. I went to our new, local Whole Foods and asked the employee in the fish department about their farm-raised salmon. I was so impressed by his thorough knowledge and the time he took to explain farm-raised salmon to me, that I posted about it later on Facebook: I wanted to send a shout out to the guy in the fish department at Whole Foods Market Albany who spent a solid 10 minutes today explaining to me all about the farm-raised salmon sold at Whole Foods. He was so knowledgable, and at the same time respectful of my concerns. I’ve never knowingly purchased farm-raised salmon before — until today. I was so impressed with the great lengths that Whole Foods goes through to independently audit and certify their fish suppliers AND to educate their employees (who in turn can actually answer their customers’ questions and educate their customers). Bravo, Whole Foods!
After this experience it occurred to me that my readers might be interested in the information shared with me in this conversation so I contacted Whole Foods to set up a formal “interview” with the fish department manager. I had no idea if they would agree to my request. Many grocery stores and food suppliers are less than transparent and have stipulations about onsite photography, etc. I was upfront about my desire to blog about the interview and bring my photographer along to photo document the whole thing. Needless to say, I was thrilled when they not only agreed to the interview, but were enthusiastic about the entire thing.
Claire (my amazing photographer) and I got to Whole Foods and first met with Keri, the marketing manager. Keri answered some of our general questions. I was interested to find out that many of the employees at Whole Foods are full-time, and that all employees go through extensive and ongoing training. Keri genuinely seemed to love her job and her coworkers, and with the way she spoke about working for Whole Foods I started to think of Whole Foods as the Southwest Airlines of grocery store chains. This might not seem completely relevant to the issues that I was there to learn about, but all things being equal, I’d rather support a business that keeps their employees happy and engaged and provides a positive, supportive work environment. Plus it makes for a way more pleasant shopping experience when everyone is going out of their way to help you and answer all your questions.
During our brief chat with Keri, I realized that I could easily do many segments on this blog about Whole Foods and how they source their products. For now I want to just focus on the seafood since that is what inspired this experience.
Keri introduced us to Mike, the seafood department manager. Mike has been with Whole Foods for several years, working his way up to department manager, and he clearly knew his stuff. We jumped right into the heart of the matter when it comes to fish – farm-raised vs. wild caught. The knowledgeable staff at Whole Foods has completely changed my mind about farm-raised fish. In the past I considered farm-raised fish (excluding hard shellfish such as mussels and clams) strictly off limits. But it turns out there is a lot more to the story than I had though.
In general, Whole Foods purchases their farm-raised fish from farms that raise fish in a setting that most closely mimics their natural habitat. For salmon this means open ocean, open-netted pens with a ratio of 95 – 99% water : 5 – 1% fish. For tilapia, it is an enclosed inland pen with a filtration system that mimics a lake or pond. For trout, they are raised in a runway type system: long concrete runways with constantly moving water that mimics a steam, etc.
Once again, the food these fish are fed mimics the food they would eat in the wild. Whole Foods does not allow the use of antibiotics (or artificial dyes, or preservatives) in food fed to the fish it sells. Raising fish in properly managed habitats reduces stress and injury on the fish and therefore the fish do not require routine use of antibiotics. (Sound familiar? This is very similar to cattle overcrowding problems while raising beef.)
Wild salmon gets its red color from eating krill. In large, poorly run, farm-raised operations, salmon is typically fed red food coloring or routinely injected with red dye (!!!!). However, in the farms where Whole Foods gets their salmon, the salmon are fed a specific yeast and/or beneficial bacteria to get its coloring and both of these things are metabolized by the fish and not passed on to the consumer.
The netting that is used in open water fish farming gets a lot of algae in it. In many conventional fish farms, the netting is treated with a copper based cleaning solution. This solution is harmful to the environment and the fish. However, in the farms that Whole Foods uses, divers actually dive down and clean the netting by power washing and scrubbing. It is very important that the algae is cleaned off the net because a high algae content can rob the water of oxygen and negatively impact the fish and the localized environment.
Location and Independent Verification
All the fish farms are third party, independently audited every six months. Many fish varieties take several years to be market ready (salmon takes 3-5 years) so the independent auditors have many occasions to visit a farm and ensure they are adhering to the standards Whole Foods sets forth during the lifespan of the fish.
Salmon sold at Whole Foods comes from Norway or Iceland. Europe has much higher standards when it comes to farm-raised fish. Shrimp comes from Vietnam or Ecuador. Shrimp farms are held to the same standards as fin-fish farms, including no antibiotics, no artificial dyes, and no preservatives. In the past few years consumers have demanded better farming environments for shrimp (most specifically: less crowded pens) and this has driven up the cost of shrimp. The farm-raised shrimp sold at my Whole Foods in upstate NY is harvested and cleaned from its farm location in Ecuador, flown to Boston, and trucked (about 3 hours) to Albany. Mike estimates that it takes approximately 4-5 days from harvest to store for fresh raw shrimp.
Interesting Sidenote about Shrimp:
I was interested to learn that most (wild and farmed) shrimp is treated with sulfites and phosphates (to maintain freshness), which is highly allergenic. Many people assume they have a shrimp allergy but in reality it is a reaction to the chemicals used to treat the shrimp when they are caught. None of the wild or farm-raised shrimp at Whole Foods are treated with these preservatives.
Whole Foods has a commitment to selling as much local product as possible. In terms of fish, our “local” area is defined as MA, CT, Long Island, and occasionally NJ. Whole Foods is the only grocery store in the country that owns its own docks in Gloucester, MA, called Pigeon Cove. At Pigeon Cove WF buyers can work directly with local fisherman and all seafood that comes out of the Pigeon Cove facility is free of sulfates and dyes.
Today local selections included: Oysters from Fisher’s Island, NY (harvested on Tuesday, in store on Wednesday); Wellfleet Oysters and Littleneck Clams from Wellfleet, MA; Squid from Montauk; Sea Scallops (always dry, never soaked in an solutions designed to inflate the scallops) from New Bedford, MA. Sidenote: different sexed scallops are different colors, interesting. Mike noted that, for our area, we are really coming into the season for local seafood and as the spring and summer progresses the local seafood selection available at Whole Foods will continue to expand. He suggests buying fish when it is in season to ensure that you get the best product available.
I was curious about smoked salmon because it is one of my youngest’s favorite foods and I am never sure which is the best to buy. In order for Whole Foods to sell smoked salmon in their store the manufacturer needs to source their salmon from a farm that meets the criteria set forth by Whole Foods (look for the “Responsibly Farmed” logo on smoked salmon in store). I learned that companies who supply Whole Foods source their salmon from high quality farms with strict standards but the standards may not be the same for other buyers. This actually cleared up some confusion I had had in the past about the price difference between one particular brand carried at both my local Whole Foods and my local chain supermarket. Mike noted that most likely the salmon is not from the same farm even though the brand packaging is the same. Interesting.
He also addressed the issue of “natural flavoring” that is prominent on many smoked salmon packages. Mike said that most of the time the natural flavoring is the smoke or the proprietary spice blend used on the smoked salmon.
Fish in Lunch Boxes – Considerations
Fish is an excellent addition to a healthy kids lunch box. I typically include leftover fish on top of salads in lunch boxes. It is an easy and healthy protein and a quick throw-together lunch. My youngest loves smoked salmon and I add that in a variety of ways to her lunches (plain, rolled up with cream cheese, on a skewer with cheese, with crackers, over salads, etc.).
Mike says the biggest consideration when packing fish into a lunch box is to make sure the lunch stays below 40 degrees. Seafood really needs to stay cold – that is why you always see fish packed in ice, on ice, and surrounded by ice. It is possible to keep lunch boxes that cold. Check out this blog post for some tips.
I really loved this visit to Whole Foods and continue to feel great about buying produce, fish, and meat from this store. The employees today were friendly and open and sooooo knowledgable. I also learned a little more about their kids programs (did you know kids can choose a free healthy snack when they enter the store to munch on while you shop!?!) which frankly I had payed little attention to before. Thank you so much to Whole Foods Albany for a very informed discussion today! I can’t wait to cook up the salmon that I bought there today!
*Whole Foods did not sponsor this post, nor did I receive any compensation, in any form, for my opinions shared today. This post was an original idea that I had, and I am grateful for Whole Foods for allowing me the opportunity to share all this information with you guys! All opinions are mine and mine alone! Thanks for reading!