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Where To Buy Seafood: The Best and Worst Grocery Stores

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Once a year, the environmental activist powerhouse Greenpeace evaluates the country's biggest supermarket chains and rates them on how well they take seafood sustainability into consideration when choosing what fish to stock their stores with. This means looking through a wide range of factors, including how often they sell "Red Listed" seafood (species that shouldn't be sold at all due to environmental concerns), how transparent they are in regards to where they source their seafood, and how engaged they are with conservationist groups.

Add those numbers up, and you get a set of Good/Pass/Fail grades. Of the 26 grocers examined this year, only four of them received good grades. So, let's go through the list and see what California shoppers should be mindful of, shall we?

The four that rank at the top of the list with "good" grades of at least 7 out of 10 are Whole Foods, the East Coast chain Wegman's, Safeway (which is Von's in SoCal), and Trader Joe's. But even those come with criticisms, with Greenpeace wagging their finger at Whole Foods for reintroducing a few Red List species, Safeway having destructively-caught tuna on their shelves, and Trader Joe's not being very transparent about their offerings.

As far as the rest of California offerings go, Target and the soon-to-be-all-over-California Aldi are in the next tier. Target got docked mostly due to their failure to provide information to customers about where they source, and Aldi lacks relationships with sustainability initiatives, and they do business with "known pirate fishing companies." Both of them, however, score well when it comes to having sustainable policies and staying away from Red Listers.

Further down are Walmart and Costco, the former getting massively docked for not being transparent and also selling nine of the 22 red-listed fish. Costco, meanwhile, only sells eight of the Red Listers, but they're very poor when it comes to giving customers information at the store. Some of that is offset, however, by Costco's participation in programs to help improve how shrimp and salmon are caught.

Kroger (owner of Ralphs), Albertson's, and WinCo bring up the rear -- as far as California offerings are concerned -- with grades barely getting them out of Greenpeace's red "failing" category. Kroger gets their biggest demerits for being the biggest seller of Red Listed fish, offering 18 of the 22 varieties. While they've made bold policy adjustments over the past few years -- including a promise not to carry GMO salmon -- as Greenpeace puts it:

The company's claim of promoting seafood sustainability cannot be taken seriously until it deals with the glaring problem posed by its Red List inventory.

Albertson's, meanwhile, confuses the customer at the point of sale with poor labeling, does not make "tangible commitments" when it comes to seafood sustainability, and does not support improvements in the fishery management. And while WinCo only sells nine of the Red Listed fish, that's about the only good thing to say about them.

So, what are we to make of all of this?

Primarily, if you're heading out to buy fish, you're better off splurging a little and shopping at Whole Foods, Safeway or Trader Joe's. Another thing to consider, no matter the store, is what kind of canned tuna you buy. If the label says "Pole & Line," that's good. If it says "FAD-free" or "ocean-safe longline," that's also good. Anything else, and it starts getting questionable and necessitates further research.

Another thing that may have hit you as I was going through the grades above is why a lack of transparency is so important, and why certain stores are getting docked harshly by failing in that category. The thing is, transparency doesn't just mean clear labels for the consumer deciding what to put in their cart. It also means allowing information to be accessible by watchdog groups who are keeping their eyes out for any nefarious activities.

For instance, certain fisheries offer their workers no real monetary compensation, others physically abuse their workers, and others are essentially dealing with human traffickers to obtain slave labor. There's a real human cost associated with a lack of transparency that goes beyond environmental reasons, which is why it's such an important category.

So keep that in mind when you're picking up fish at the market. These decisions matter more than you realize.

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