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Update as of 4:45 p.m. 6-17-18:

Adding a link to the latest response from Sea To Table Founder Sean Dimmin to the AP story. In the response, he goes on the defensive, calling out “numerous misstatements and false allegations,” alluding to shoddy or incomplete reporting. Dimin points out instances where the reporting does seem to leave a bit of detail and process open to question. He also admits Sea To Table could have better communicated with its suppliers (in particular, Gosman’s) and with its customers.

That’s all fine. He’s saying the right things for someone in his predicament. But I don’t think the conversation should end there. Those in the domestic seafood industry, and those who promote it, face a steep challenge. Trust is absolutely essential to trying to convince even small percentages of US consumers to get seafood smart and buy domestically. The original premise behind Sea To Table or any similar minded operation is to promote local seafood, fishermen and waterfronts, often regardless of customer geography. So even if lapses in communication to customers or partners that led to  mislabeling, etc., are the only truly valid mistakes made, we need to be having this conversation. As we’re trying to limit the more than 1.5 million tons of cheap, imported farmed shrimp (among other unsustainably harvested species) flooding markets in this country every year, we need to be honest and forthright.

I do not agree with some who claim the negative attention and likely serious sales hit to Sea To Table is just desserts and the company should go away. I think these communications issues don’t rest with Sea To Table alone in the industry. It’s a tough, and generally laudable mission these companies try to accomplish. But I also don’t think we can make excuses for those whose lapses could set the entire movement back by calling trust in domestic seafood systems into question. We need to have these conversations, find solutions and move forward to turn that 90% domestic import figure around.

 

It all comes down to trust … and relationships.

This week’s news that one of the rising stars of the locally sourced, sustainable seafood movement may have been selling seafood that wasn’t local, may have been mislabeled and was possibly linked to slave labor in other countries sent shock waves through the industry.

Brooklyn-based Sea To Table has built quite a following with its promise of sustainable, traceable, domestically harvested wild seafood delivered to your doorstep. Clients included celebrity chefs like Rick Bayless national food chains such as Chopt Creative Salad, a bunch of universities like Yale, eateries at the Empire State Building and Chicago O’Hare airport and the home meal kit provider Hello Fresh. It can be found in almost every state.

But an Associated Press report issued earlier this week shed light on some of the issues that can arise with this boat-to-table model and the temptation of entrepreneurs to co-opt, then sweep aside the spirit and intent of terms such as “sustainable seafood” and “local.”

The colossal irony being that they may be knowingly or unknowingly violating the principles they promote, all in an attempt to bring clarity and trust to what Sea to Table Founder Sean Dimin calls “the historically opaque seafood industry.” The Sea To Table business model is to work with some 60 “local” fishermen and fishing operations/distributors to source “traceable” seafood from around the country.

The AP report outlines a lengthy investigation uncovering a slew of allegations that run headlong into the company’s  mission statement. For example, promoting fresh, locally caught yellow fin tuna in the winter off New York, when the migration south occurred several months beforehand and no local fishermen had been out. Or charges that some of the seafood Sea to Table sold was in fact imported and linked to Indonesian operations with a history of labor abuse. Other charges included selling farm-raised seafood despite the wild-only claim.

So yes, this was big news in that it surprised many in the industry. It will also raise lots of questions, piss some people off and confuse the hell out of consumers. What are they supposed to do to be sure they are buying local, sustainable seafood?

Dimin is correct in that the seafood industry is indeed opaque. There are few places that have completely transparent supply chains. Consider that seafood travels more than 5,000 miles on average from boat to plate in this country, often changing hands at least seven times.

The AP report is informative and sad, but it isn’t really broaching any new allegations about industry practices. Check out this exhaustive AP report on slave labor linked to imported seafood. The fact we import 90% of the seafood we eat just means more of the seafood consumed in the U.S. may be linked to brutal labor practices.

But the issue of trust and misrepresentation goes beyond just the seafood industry. The whole concept of questionable food sourcing and marketing practices isn’t new. For example, the Tampa Bay Times ran a series in 2016 about the farm-to-table movement, and how many restaurants and purveyors were glazing over, and sometimes outright lying about the provenance of their food.

What is local?

All of this goes back to a discussion I had this week with Josh Stoll, a research professor at the University of Maine and a co-founder of Local Catch, an organization that promotes community-supported fisheries and other direct-to-consumer operations aimed at bringing people closer to their seafood.

We discussed how the Sea to Table news raises the very valid question of how to define “local” and how to re-build consumer trust. Josh spends much of his time working to streamline and improve community-based fisheries governance for the benefit of fishermen, their communities and consumers.

“The definition of ‘local’ is evolving,” he said. “It’s less about geography and more about relationships.”

He’s exactly right. Just as the terms “organic” and “sustainable” have been stripped of their original intents by overuse and bastardization of meaning, “local” without valid context has become vapid marketing speak. It could mean so many things and nothing at all if there is no valid context to support its use.

Case in point: Sea To Table uses “local” in the first sentence of its mission statement to showcase the quality of the seafood it sources. Now, regardless of whether the company knowingly misled customers, it has much work to do to re-establish credibility. Dimin and his crew can’t just plead that they are still offering “local” seafood. They have to earn back that trust.

How? By going back to the basic mission and working to repair the relationships that the company was built on. Not an easy task.

When I host KNOW FISH Dinners® and invite people to talk to the fish harvester who caught the fish they are eating, I’m creating a direct link to the food producer that more often than not remains a mystery in this “opaque” industry. I tell people I want them to think about their next seafood purchase the same way they think about buying eggs or produce from a farmer at a farmer’s market.

Those are the kinds of relationships that define “local” for me.

Know your seafood, know your provider

So, say you live in Kansas. You probably don’t live next door to a commercial fish harvester. This is where enterprises like Sea To Table have begun to fill the void. The problem arises when customers take the “local” claim on faith without establishing some kind of relationship with the provider. If they get to know the provider, even if the provider is a distributor with direct links to the fish harvester, they get a better sense of the values and ethics used by the provider to promote their product. They should also be able to get the story of the fish harvester as well. Same goes for distributors like Sea To Table. They need to build solid relationships with the fish harvesters and docks providing the seafood to ensure they hew closely to strict guidelines.

That’s how you build trust. The AP story calls the latter point about Sea To Table’s supplier relationships into question.

Sure there are situations when establishing that level of trust isn’t possible. But one of the key points I make with folks is that knowledge really is power. Consumers fare much better ensuring the quality and provenance of the seafood they purchase when they get smart about what is locally and seasonally available, who has the best product, and who is trustworthy. This all takes time.

But it’s worth it.

Owning the relationship

Can things still go awry? Absolutely. Sea To Table is the proof. I’m not sure I believe this was a wholesale willful violation of trust. Read Sean Dimin’s first letter in response to the AP story. As I said, there are no new revelations in the news story about what happens in the industry. And Sea To Table has much work to do to repair its reputation. More so now that Sen. Edward Markey has asked NOAA and the Federal Trade Commission in a letter to investigate the claims against Sea To Table.

The situation underscores the fact there are many gray areas in domestic food systems. But it also reinforces the notion that people should take more ownership of their seafood purchases. Again, it’s all about relationships. We talk about the relationship people have to the seafood they eat during these hosted KNOW FISH Dinners. Their (our) choices have an impact on the resource, the fish harvester and the community. Getting closer to the source, even if that closeness is more relational than geographic, will minimize the risk of being misled.

That 90% import statistic won’t change unless we build, strengthen and multiply these very important relationships.

Check out the Local Catch website as it is a good resource for finding responsibly harvested seafood throughout the country. I believe there are several  operations who are delivering on their promise of responsibly harvested product. You can find some of them listed on the Local Catch website.

Also, stay tuned for more discussion about this topic. It is a fundamental reason for why we should care where, when, how and by whom our seafood was harvested.

If you’d like additional perspective, read Paul Greenberg’s take on the situation here.

 

Photo courtesy of New England Fishmongers