Another Step Toward Ecological Seafood Menus

Another step towards sustainable seafood menus: My prior HuffPost blog noted a simple restaurant chef's recipe for more sustainable menus. I stated that the "magic formula" was:

• Source Well
• Portion Well
• Price Well
• Tell people the story of the fish

Some responded with skepticism, some wanted a deeper breakdown. Fair enough. Let's break down what this "formula" takes, with a hope to encourage more chefs to make changes for good. Let me say that I came to this perspective through careful observation, and a range of interviews with CleanFish customer-chefs over the past decade of our work.

Step One: Source Well

This first step is more challenging than it might seem. In the past, the seafood industry has too often failed the test on accurate labeling. It is not easy to know what your buying, or eating. Truth is many in the trade mainstream feel it is in their interest to keep the consumer fairly ignorant. If there is a fillet of white fish on ice sitting on that counter, how many customers will know what it is - really? Most markets guess that is not likely, and they're usually safe in that assumption. So if you were hoping to take home snapper, or a grouper, or a sole... why should I as a fellow stuck behind the fish counter disappoint you with facts? You're going to buy this fish, pan fry it or broil it and squeeze lemon all over it... and you'll mostly like that dish. So, why should I interfere with some genuine data?

That seems to have been the view at many a fish counter for over the past 40 or so years. After a time, the fellow behind the counter knows only what the box of ice delivered in the back of the shop says if it says anything. So the trade lost all sense of its role in identifying the fish properly, of knowing much about how to prepare it for the home cook, of how various cuisines of the world would serve or combine that fish with other elements to create a nourishing meal. In most homes fish is something we order when we go out. We feel insecure about knowing how to cook fish, and it is expensive so we don't want to blow it, and it can smell up the place anyway.

As the conditioned inertia of most seafood consumers follows the well-laid pathways of the foods we eat, fewer and fewer even behind your local fish counter really have the skills and desire to even know much about the origin of the seafood being sold. It is only recently that COOLS, or Country of Origin Labels were required on fish on the counters. So even the need to correctly identify what nation the fish we are buying came from is rather new.

As investigative journalists have uncovered over and again in the 10 years since my co-founding CleanFish with my colleague Dale Sims, few fish counters really know much about the fish they are serving you. Literally many do not know even whether the fish is from a farmed or wild source.

We have traded knowing much about the sources of our food for the sake of convenience. And it is that trend that I hope has brought all of us to a breaking point. Sometimes we need breakdowns to have the drive to create breakthroughs. With every passing food scare, every breakdown of food safety and every discovery of the usage of hormones, of prophylactic use of antibiotics, of malachite green or some chemical soaking trick to increase water retention for weight gain to make an extra dime or dollar; the consumers of this nation are increasingly skeptical, if not cynical, regarding the genuine interests of the corporations that prepare, process, and distribute our food. And we are right to feel that way.

In the strong journalistic tradition of exposé cinema such as Food, Inc and Fast Food Nation, the recent documentary film Fed Up, chronicles the unchecked and disastrous onslaught of advertising, media hero sponsorships, and ubiquitous presence of the sugar industry seemingly perfectly willing to undermine the health and vitality of our nation from within. From within our homes, our schools, our shopping markets and every neighborhood convenience store we have overwhelmingly given up our power. Families have become inadvertently active participants in undermining their own health before the conveniently accessible energy hit provided by the über dominance of the multinational and national sugar conglomerates. Am I being extreme? Was Michael Bloomberg, in fact, really the Mayor of New Nannygatetown?

This powerful film, Fed Up, documents the addictive future strategically planned for by the sugar corporations as if they were following scripts printed by the tobacco corporations of just some 40 or so years ago. The sugar and chemical foods industries assume, as if it were their right and privilege, to leave in their wake statistics that are staggering regarding the current and future disease rates of our nation's youth. At the cost of our national and regional healthcare budgets the statistics around diabetes and sugar-related disease factors makes it clear that these corporations have acted as if determined to undermine our youth, and therefore the future productivity of this country. As stated by a former Director of the National Institute of Health, "this country is toast."

Sourcing transparently and well is a critical part to ending this cycle. We cannot change what we cannot see, manage, or understand. Those of us who have been in the business of educating and providing more information regarding the sources of our food are fighting upstream. So, I'm possibly not being extreme enough on these points, given the powerful flood of convenience foods banging on every cupboard in your kitchen, every locker in your child's school.

In the seafood trade, you can reassert your civic right, whether chef or consumer, to know what you are buying, where it is from and how the fish you want was harvested, or raised. Still, your rights are only real if exercised. Only if you ask, only if you demand information, only if you take the full advantage of your role as the one funding this food system do you step from a very conditioned and limited food conversation from the past into the current capacities of this information age of access to knowing more, not less, about the food you are eating. Only in exercising this power is it made real. Note how hesitant we are in this simple act of exercising our rights. Yet only if we do will the stores and restaurants you reward with your funds make it part of their business to know what they are selling and, consequently, what your are buying. Don't ask, don't tell is not what we need in the civic discourse around our food systems.

It is time for a more actively engaged food revolution powered by more information, and that is precisely what we're about. Oh yeah, it's on.

Next, I will address the issue of portion size as another core step toward more sustainable seafood menus.