Tinned Tuna

There has been a lot of publicity about the imminent demise of tuna in the last year.  Whilst most of the attention has been on Bluefin tuna it opens a whole can of worms with regard to the tuna usually bought in UK supermarkets.

So, what are the different types of tuna and which ones do we commonly eat (fortunately Greenpeace has a helpful guide).  There are 23 types of tuna, and, according to Greenpeace, 22 of them are vulnerable.  The main market for the aforementioned Bluefin is Japan which takes 90% of the catch.  In the UK we consume some Yellowfin Tuna (sold as steaks at the fresh fish counters and in some tins – to be avoided if it is not caught by sustainable methods) along with Albercore and Skipjack (also in tins).  By far the most common is Skipjack which is also the tuna most likely to be found in ready meals and pre-prepared sandwiches.  The UK is the second biggest consumer of tinned tuna (after the US) and so I will concentrate on this source.

Following on from the publicity, there have been declarations of never eating tuna again, no more tuna sandwiches, but is this entirely necessary.  According to the Ecologist, it probably is, according to Greenpeace, on whose survey the Ecologist article was largely based, tinned tuna need not disappear from our collective menu.

So, just what is the problem with tinned tuna from a sustainability point of view (ignoring the potential problem of mercury in fish)?  A lot of tuna is caught in large nets or by lines up to 100km long.  We all remember the adverse publicity that came from pictures of dolphins caught in the net and the advent of ‘dolphin-friendly’ labels on tins of tuna.  However, dolphins are not the only bycatch of the tuna industry, other marine species that are caught include several species of turtle, sharks, rays and young tuna.  These together constitute about 10% of the catch with some fishing methods, which is where most of the problem with eating Skipjack tuna lies.  Much of the tuna fish destined for the tinned market is caught using large nets (purse seines) with floats on to encourage the fish to gather together which is where this bycatch is at its worst.

What can we, as consumers, do about this?  There are more sustainable methods of fishing, such as pole and line, which target the adult fish and therefore avoid much of the bycatch.  These also tend to be smaller outfits that are more likely to support local projects and which will look after local fish stocks, being unable to move to other areas once a resource has been used up.  Therefore, always look at the label to see what kind of tuna it is – if it is yellowfin, is there a skipjack alternative (these are more numerous than yellowfin)?

Tinned TunaNext look at the method of fishing.  Waitrose, have recently introduced an own label tinned tuna which is clearly marked as being caught by pole and line methods.  If they don’t state on the tin, assume the worst – with the recent publicity it is in their interests to tell you if it is a sustainable method.  John West and Princes are the two largest brands in the UK, they were bottom in the recent Greenpeace survey and do not seem too interested in changing their ways. I checked John West, in most cases they do not state either the type of tuna or the method of catching it.  On the contrary, Sainsbury’s who came top in the original survey have gone 100% own brand  pole and line and introduced a branded pole and line range.  M&S are also moving to 100% pole and line for their own brands and are extending it to the tuna used in their sandwiches, salads and ready meals.  The other supermarkets seem a little less responsive, maybe they will catch up.

I have recently written to Waitrose, my supermarket of choice (as I only have Tesco and Aldi as local alternatives) asking them to stop stocking other brands which do not conform to their own standards (ie John West), I doubt that they will do this, but, if sales of this brand were to drop relative to their own, more ethically produced brand, then maybe they will think again.

So, I don’t have to stop buying my tinned tuna, I just have to be a little discerning and boycott the larger brands in the hope that declining public opinion and sales will give them a reason to look at their social responsibility.

Ethical Shopping on the High Street?

An article in the Times last week detailed a survey of the buying habits of ‘the country’s “green” consumers’. In this survey Primark had been voted Britain’s least ethical clothing retailer. This is obviously a backlash against the recent Panorama investigation which exposed the use of child labour. As many of you know this resulted in many people losing their income as Primark took its business elsewhere (although we do not know how ‘ethical’ the new supplier is). Many have argued that a more responsible action would have been to work with the supplier to correct the problem.

At the top of the table is Marks & Spencer who have apparently had lots of good publicity about their ethical policies (publicity and policies which have passed me by). These include a clothes recycling initiative with Oxfam where a £5 M&S voucher is given to those who donate clothing to the charity with at least one M&S garment.

According to the same survey the most important concern of these shoppers with regard to clothing was the fair treatment of workers in developing countries. I was surprised by this as it appears to be several times more important than sourcing products in the UK or investing in the communities in which the store is located. We are apparently ethical, but we also want things to be cheap. Besides, who cares about local jobs and communities these days, or the carbon footprint of the things we buy (maybe it should be printed on the label like nutritional information on food). Maybe, in such difficult times we should champion the Buy British campaign again.

Still, surely all this ethical shopping and concern for the low paid of the developing countries must be good news. Indeed it should be, but the financial results released last week would appear to paint a different picture of Britain’s consumer habits.

In an interesting coincidence the results for M&S and Primark came out on the same day. Sales at M&S in these depressed times are not good, Twiggy may be for the chop! However, business at ‘unethical’ Primark is positively booming. M&S has reported a 34% fall in profits, whereas Primark had a whacking rise in profits of 17%. Where does this leave us? Sadly, with the stark realisation that we ‘green’ or ‘ethical’ consumers are in the minority. Were we ever likely to shop at Primark? I tend to find that those who do are usually more interested in getting as much as they can for as cheap as they can and usually don’t read the label. At a time when it thought that people may be buying less, I am afraid they are buying the same amount, only cheaper.

As I stated earlier, M&S’s ethical stance had passed me by (apart from being able to buy a limited range of fair trade clothing). So, where do you go for ethical clothing, and, just as importantly, who do you avoid. This information is not easy to come by. I have tried searching the internet, but I do not want to buy organic soap and other so-called ethical gifts. The reports that I could find are several years old and things may have changed. Even campaign groups such as Labour Behind the Label do not have easy to find information on their website.

There are companies out there, some of them only small at the moment (e.g. Bamboo Clothing) and usually not with outlets on the high street. You do have to search for them, but surely, it is worth the effort?