Wegmans Food Markets: Homespun Sustainability

Seafood Lessons For Produce

Carl Salamone, Wegmans’ vice president seafood, knows of sustainability, since he’s been at Wegmans for 47 years, and opened up the first fish department in 1974. “Back then, we thought fisheries were everlasting and sustainability wasn’t an issue,” he says, remembering pivotal conversations with Danny Wegman when the tides started changing in the late 80s and early 90s.

“More and more east coast fisheries were closing, and Danny went back to all our suppliers to see what we could do.” Certain areas banned fishing for scallops and for the first time there were more farmed fish than wild, he explains.

In 2004, the Environmental Defense Fund developed standards, particularly for salmon and shrimp. Wegmans challenged itself to take the lead in setting the highest standards for the industry, according to Salamone, adding, “Sustainability is not a marketing tool for Wegmans. We always share our findings with other retailers.”

There’s a large expense to implement many of these sustainable measures, which also can be extremely taxing and complex, according to Salamone. Wegmans has been able to overcome these challenges by establishing unique supplier partnerships, sometimes obscure and involving resourceful networking. For instance, “In Honduras, I was given the name of a family in Belize with a shrimp farm, and we formed a partnership that was a marriage made in heaven. The father had the idea for the business and the son is now stewarding the program,” he explains.

“It was like Bob Wegman and Danny Wegman in small scale. It became our model,” he says. “We brought in tough standards to suppliers of Atlantic salmon,” noting that six people run the whole operation for Wegmans’ salmon farm in Ireland.

As Salamone has talked to suppliers to instigate EU standards, his hope is that EU standards will be regulated around the world, says Jeanne Colleluori, communications and media specialist, who also has been actively involved in Wegmans’ seafood sustainability measures, noting that FDA has approved GMO salmon and it doesn’t have to be on the label.

Wegmans is keen on educating its customers and sharing the stories behind its seafood sustainability ventures. When Wegmans introduced its Belize shrimp, now 17 percent of its shrimp sales, it did a lot of sampling and explained to customers why this is a premium product. “When customers hear the story, there is a segment of the population that is willing to pay the higher price it demands,” she says.

A few years ago, tragedy struck the family of the Belize shrimp farm, forcing it to close. “I was heartbroken to learn the father, who had become my friend, was killed in a plane crash,” says Salamone. Mary Ellen Burris, senior vice president, consumer affairs, wrote a blog informing customers of the news, and she received an outpouring of reaction.

When Wegmans was able to reopen the operation, customers welcomed the special product back, Salamone explains, noting its unmistakable presence because of the shrimp’s rich pigmented shell, caused by the black lining on the tarp used during the more sustainable farming process.

A range of different seafood certifications can create confusion within the industry and at the consumer level, according to Colleluori, adding that not all are created equal or in fact necessary. “Chilean seabass is an endangered species, so we want to guarantee it is MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) certified, and Wegmans outlines why on its website, where it lists all certifications for those who are interested. Although we don’t always insist on certifications, we do have best practices that we expect as a baseline. It’s a traceability issue,” says Salamone, adding, part of sustainability is in knowing where product came from, going back to the feed. There are certain species Wegmans won’t carry because there are not enough sustainability standards in place.

“Wegmans joined Sustainable Fisheries Partnership (SFP) to gain a big overall picture of where we need to improve,” says Salamone. Wegmans had all its suppliers fill out SFP’s elec-tronic questionnaire to help in gathering information on everything being sold at the stores. “The single biggest surprise in talking to the suppliers was that they had similar concerns but didn’t know how to go about fixing them,” he says.
In true Wegmans’ fashion, “We brought in all our suppliers for a group meeting to share ideas. They were not used to sitting next to their competitors,” he says, “but they were enthusiastic to soak in solutions and work together for a greater cause.”