Delhaize America and GMRI Partnership

For many NGO staff and their retail partners, the initial effort to create a sustainable seafood policy and vet thousands of products can amount to long hours behind the scenes and a meticulous review of paper trails. Indeed, collecting detailed data on seafood products represents one of the key steps in the Alliance’s Common Vision to achieve environmentally sustainable seafood. The experience of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI) was no exception to this rule when it first partnered with Delhaize America to create a sustainable seafood policy and management plan in 2009.

According to Jen Levin, Sustainable Seafood Program Manager at GMRI, the process of reviewing seafood products was exhaustive, to say the least. “The recordkeeping alone was painstaking: there are thousands of products to review and each individual product can have multiple sources.” Physically tracking down which products are coming from which sources can be analogous to a vexing jigsaw puzzle. GMRI staff helped develop a list of criteria to track, which were based on Delhaize America’s sustainability policy and informed by external standards. Reviewing the criteria for each individual source could take a matter of minutes or several weeks, depending on the available data. For each fishery, GMRI staff verified that products were harvested in accordance with the key principles outlined in Delhaize’s sustainability policy.

In the U.S. alone, GMRI has helped review the sourcing of 2,500 fresh, frozen, canned, and packaged seafood products. Although Delhaize America’s respective banners—including Hannaford, Food Lion, and Bottom Dollar Food—may target different markets, all adhere to the same bar for sustainability.

Leadership-driven change

Similar to the origins of many partnerships between Alliance members and retailers, the impetus for improving seafood sourcing stemmed from the leadership team within Delhaize. According to Josanna Busby, who is category manager of seafood at Delhaize America, the company sought to take a proactive approach to sustainability, “We wanted to get out in front on seafood sustainability before it became a consumer concern. This was a push from our leadership.”

Part of the internal push for seafood sustainability was motivated by the travel experiences of Kimberly Taylor, who is category director of meat and seafood at Delhaize America. When Taylor saw first-hand the sometimes troubling working conditions of fisheries in Asia (more broadly in the region, not necessarily of Delhaize’s own suppliers), she recognized that “there was a need to put ground rules on the company’s seafood sourcing,” as Busby put it.

GMRI collaborated with Delhaize America to create a sustainable seafood policy and management plan in 2009. The GMRI team approached the project as a partner in the process, providing resources to the company and facilitating dialogue about the elements that mattered most to the company’s values—rather than presenting Hannaford’s leadership with a pre-assembled policy in a top-down fashion.

According to Levin, it’s been a remarkable process to see the growth in industry interest and understanding of seafood sustainability issues. “Originally it was all about food safety,” Levin explained. “But it’s been neat to see the evolution over the past several years and to hear industry say, ‘we’re working on a FIP in this location and improving management in this fishery.’ The change in the knowledge of the industry has advanced considerably.”

Enduring commitment during times of change

One inevitable aspect of working with a retail partner is that internal re-structuring may take place within a company, creating unforeseen changes in staff roles and processes. When Delhaize America undertook a major transition to merge internal functions in 2013, there were several changes in staff positions, including at high levels. Additionally, category management for all of seafood was transitioned to the parent company’s headquarters in North Carolina.

However, the momentum from GMRI’s earlier efforts on the partnership carried through the transition, partly as a result of the company’s committed leadership. “Even after a major transition, the new leadership saw sustainable seafood as a priority,” Levin said. “We saw strong internal leadership from our partners during the entire transition.”

Delhaize staff likewise recognized the mutual benefits of the partnership and relied on GMRI to continue vetting every seafood product through its North Carolina headquarters. “I’ve leaned on Jen a lot to learn about seafood sustainability,” said Busby. “I can feel confident that anything that Jen helps us vet, we can say without a doubt that the product is from a sustainable fishery and we can put it into our stores.”

Delhaize’s commitment to seafood sustainability has also motivated the company to become an active participant in FIPs for several species, including red snapper, bigeye tuna, yellowfin tuna, and blue crab. Additionally, Delhaize is the only grocery retailer with representation on the Work Group for the Jonah Crab FIP, which was initiated when the company learned that the Jonah crab supply did not meet its criteria for sustainable harvest in order to continue stocking the species in its stores.

What’s next for the partnership?

Going forward, Delhaize will continue to take steps to ensure the sustainability of seafood sold in its stores, guided by the support and counsel of partners like GMRI. Busby suggests that the company has an appetite to share lessons learned and expand collaboration between Delhaize America and Delhaize Belgium. “I see us in the future as having a lot more conversations around sustainability with our international team going forward,” Busby said.

Additionally, the company is seeking to tackle broader issues surrounding seafood sustainability, such as examining human rights and labor issues in its supply chain—a topic that remains relatively under-represented in the media, but one upon which Alliance members such as FishWise are beginning to shed more light.

Busby described Delhaize’s commitment to address all aspects related to sustainable seafood policy, “Sustainability is an important part of our business, and we’re continuing to delve into the social side of the seafood industry.” To this end, the company requires its suppliers to sign a Seafood Master Vendor Agreement stating that the companies are not sourcing any wild-caught fish that has been purchased from boats or processed using either child or slave labor. Delhaize is currently developing a monitoring process with the Business Social Compliance Initiative (BSCI) or a comparable audit standard to perform social audits to verify compliance with the vendor agreement. To date, the company has requested audits from all of its shrimp suppliers and will next pursue audits with its finfish suppliers.

But companies like Delhaize can often face a complex task in their quest to identify human rights abuses, which may be buried deep in supply chains. “We’re beginning to use audits to monitor labor issues, but the audits can only go so far back in the supply chain,” Busby explained. As forward-thinking retailers begin to explore more intricate issues such as human rights abuses in the supply chain, it is clear that there is ripe opportunity for Alliance members to provide needed tools and expertise to support retail partners eager to engage on these issues.