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Farming Seafood to Tough Standards

Whether you call it “fish farming” or go for the more formal term “aquaculture,” people have a variety of concerns about farmed fish. (Yes, wild-caught seafood has its issues too — see our recent post on our new wild seafood ranking program.) Having worked in the seafood business for more than 20 years, I can safely say that one of the biggest changes in the last few decades has been the implementation of the Whole Foods Market Aquaculture standards. Two years ago (in 2008) we launched the toughest Quality Standards for farmed seafood in the trade. Fish farmer who want to work with us must complete a lengthy application detailing all their farming practices (along with a huge list of other things). they must testify that no mammalian or avian by-products are in their feed, that no added hormones are used, and that organophosphate pesticides are never applied. And it’s more than just words — the farm must be certified that they meet our Standards for Farmed Seafood by a 3rd party inspector before any of their fish makes its way to our stores. Not only that, but they must continue to pass annual inspections for as long as they do business with us. Through this process we have discovered some amazing producers. Last week I wrote about some pretty incredible wild-caught Atlantic cod from Iceland. Not to be outdone, the salmon producers in Iceland are providing us with some of the most intriguing farmed salmon available. Salmon raised on land, in tanks, in water heated by geo-thermal springs. This means no escapes, good water quality, and just rich and sweet farmed Atlantic salmon. Currently we are the sole supplier of this amazing yet limited product – found only in our Midwest region stores. Another example is our farmed catfish. We buy 100% of our farmed catfish for all of our stores from one North Carolina producer. They own the hatchery, the farm, the processing plant and the feed mill, providing complete control. You won’t find catfish this clean tasting anywhere else. All around the country, our commitment is strong with local producers. We partner with local trout and tilapia farms in Colorado for our stores there, and many of our southern regions buy farm raised American shrimp from our only domestic shrimp supplier, located in Alabama. So just how tough are our standards? Taking a look at the controversial world of farmed salmon is a good indication. There are thousands of conventional salmon farms in the world; we’ve found four unique producers raising fish on less than ten farms that can meet our requirements (these farms are in Iceland, Scotland and Norway.) As we look to the southern hemisphere, let’s talk tilapia. The majority of tilapia farms across the globe use a hormone called methyltestosterone in production. Whole Foods Market doesn’t allow any added hormones, so we work exclusively with four producers who can meet our requirement for fish free of added hormones — one in the U.S., one in Central America and two in South America. Spoiler Alert (or Special Alert, depending on your point of view!): Some time in the next few weeks (they won’t let me say exactly when), keep your eyes peeled for an incredible value on farm-raised shrimp exclusively from your local Whole Foods fishmonger. With that in mind, here’s the story on farmed shrimp. We source from only three producers and have traceability back to their farms. And these are not your typical farms; our producers meet our standards for protecting the environment by avoiding  mangrove areas to protect sensitive ecosystmes and maintain good water quality. You’ll never find added phosphates or sulfates in our shrimp — we don’t want anything to take away from the sweet, delicate flavor of shrimp raised right. In fact, our shrimp are harvested to order and flash frozen within hours of harvest and you can taste the difference. So how do you know you’re purchasing farmed seafood that meets Whole Foods Market’s strict standards? Of course, shop at our stores! That’s where you’ll find our aquaculture logo — Responsibly Farmed — your assurance that every pound of farmed seafood you purchase from us has been 3rd party verified to meet our standards. These same standards apply for our frozen and smoked offerings too. And remember, if you have questions about our farmed fish, just ask! Our fish mongers are here to help.