- Greenpeace has scored the 16 largest U.S. grocery retailers on human rights and environmental sustainability in their tuna sourcing, giving just one, ALDI, a “passing” overall grade.
- The report gave just two of the retailers, ALDI and Whole Foods Market, passing grades for addressing sustainability issues.
- None of the retailers received a passing grade for efforts to rid their supply chains of forced labor and other human rights abuses.
- The U.S. is the world’s second-largest tuna importer and its retailers wield significant clout within the tuna sector, according to the report.
Canned tuna is trending in the U.S. again: after a tail-off in its consumption in the three decades through 2016, the cheap and shelf-stable protein’s popularity surged during the COVID-19 pandemic. Then, last year, it got a major boost from young foodie influencers on TikTok: apparently, tuna-based date nights have become a thing, with the hashtag #tinnedfish gaining more than 26.5 million views on the social media app so far.
Part of this resurgence has to do with the product’s supposed sustainability street cred: it’s often seen as an eco-friendly alternative to other animal proteins. But a new report by environmental NGO Greenpeace says that despite considerable progress, U.S. grocery chains still have a long way to go on addressing serious environmental and human rights concerns in their sourcing of tuna products.
The U.S. is the world’s second-largest tuna importer and its retailers wield significant clout within the $42 billion global tuna sector, according to the report. Greenpeace has been ranking U.S. seafood retailers on sustainability criteria since 2008. This is the second such report to incorporate human rights considerations.
The report’s authors compiled a scorecard for the 16 largest U.S. grocery retailers on their tuna sourcing practices. To do so, they sent out a survey, which 11 of the retailers completed and returned, and used publicly available information for the remaining five. They scored the retailers with percentage grades based on 39 questions across six categories: procurement policy; traceability; advocacy and initiatives; human rights and labor protections; current sourcing; and customer education and labeling.
‘Top of the class’ still a low bar
On human rights, none of the retailers received a passing (60%) grade. “This is a testament to the glacial pace of progress in the tuna retailer industry when it comes to taking decisive action to address human rights and labor issues in their supply chain,” Mallika Talwar, a senior oceans campaigner at Greenpeace and a co-author of the report, told Mongabay by email.
German grocery giant ALDI came closest to a passing human rights grade, at 56%, and the report praised its “comprehensive, publicly available seafood and human rights policies” and explicit advocacy “for a living wage for workers in its supply chain.” Its score was reduced by the limited scope of its grievance mechanisms and the fact that its corporate responsibility supplier evaluation program is still in development.
Scoring worst on human rights was Southeastern Grocers, the parent company of Fresco y Más, Harveys Supermarket, and Winn-Dixie. Its corporate social responsibility report “did not include even one mention of human rights,” said the report, “and the company continues to have no discernible policy on at-sea-transshipment, human rights due diligence, migrant workers, or grievance mechanisms.”
Transshipment is a practice whereby fishing vessels offload their catch onto other boats that deliver it to shore. It is often associated with illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, and because it enables fishing vessels to remain at sea for long periods, it also contributes to the risk of human and labor rights abuses in supply chains.
On sustainability, Amazon-owned Whole Foods Market, the largest U.S. chain specializing in “natural” and organic foods, scored highest, at 75%. ALDI came in second at 70%, bringing up its combined overall score to 62%, the first and only overall passing grade since the addition of human rights factors to the rankings last year. The authors praised Whole Foods’ strong traceability and sourcing requirements, including its commitment to selling only pole-and-line and hand-line-caught canned tuna. These methods ensure less bycatch and overfishing than other methods, and have human rights benefits as vessels are smaller and tend to work coastally rather than in the open ocean, leading to shorter periods at sea and more localized employment.
At the other end of the scale, Michigan-based chain Meijer scored last on sustainability with a grade of 20%, earning it the lowest overall grade of 16%. Reasons for this included its continued sourcing of at-risk species like bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus, T. ), and of fish caught using damaging catch methods (such as longlines and purse seine nets assisted by fish-aggregating devices) and in already-overfished areas, among other factors. Costco came second-to-last with a sustainability score of 32%. Critiques centered on its “vague” sourcing and seafood sustainability policies and its lack of a policy on transshipment.
Mongabay reached out to eight of the 16 grocers the report ranked for comment: ALDI, Ahold Delhaize, Whole Foods, Meijer, Wegmans, Albertsons, Costco, and Kroger. None responded.
Environmental and social safeguards are particularly critical in tuna sourcing given the nature of the industry. Most of its fishing takes place in “probably the most isolated workplace on the planet,” according to Greenpeace’s press release announcing the report, so “human rights and environmental standards have always been easy to skirt.”
The NGO’s research suggests that this often results in tuna products of dubious environmental and social pedigree being made available on supermarket shelves in the U.S., despite grocery chains’ reassurances to the contrary. In 2020, Greenpeace linked tuna caught by vessels that supply the ubiquitous canned-tuna brand Bumble Bee to forced labor, human trafficking, and IUU fishing practices — and then traced the tuna to a Kroger-owned Harris Teeter in Arlington, Virginia, according to the press release.
The report demands enhanced traceability and transparency in tuna supply chains. It asks that retailers follow the lead of employee-owned supermarket chain Hy-Vee (which ranked fourth overall in the report) and publicly release a full list of their supplying vessels. It also seeks the phaseout of transshipment.
According to the report, awareness of the need for sustainable sourcing policies in the tuna industry is becoming widespread, with measures such as fisheries improvement projects (FIPs), bans on transshipment at sea, and reducing bycatch now included in many retailers’ seafood sourcing policies.
“When we first began publishing these reports, hardly any retailers were aware of or had given any thought to their seafood sourcing practices,” Talwar said. “Ten years and ten editions later, while many environmental issues persist in global seafood supply chains, seafood sustainability principles have moved from the fringe to the mainstream. Almost all retailers have some sort of sustainability policy in place, and most of them have stopped stocking highly problematic species such as orange roughy [Hoplostethus atlanticus].”
On human rights, however, both awareness and action are decidedly lagging. The International Labour Organization’s Work in Fishing Convention of 2007 lays out clear guidelines for working conditions on fishing vessels, but only ALDI has explicitly committed to that policy, and the report found that none of the retailers had comprehensive human rights due diligence frameworks: “[i]n fact, the worst performers seemed to have barely considered the issue at all,” it read.
While its emphasis was firmly on the distance still to travel, the report’s outlook was ultimately optimistic, and highlighted several elements of progress, such as some retailers developing promising sustainability policies that as yet lack important details and clarity, and some improving their scores from previous years. The authors caution, however, that further change will require consistent pressure on retailers.
Banner image: Frozen albacore tuna on a fishing boat in the Pacific Ocean. Tuna is stacked and weighed before being shipped for processing into canned tuna. Image © Paul Hilton / Greenpeace.
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