How Chicken of the Sea drove down its global footprint

How Chicken of the Sea drove down its global footprint

Seafood companies may swim in different waters than other food producers from a sustainability perspective, but it doesn't mean they're immune to a sea change in their operations.

Concerns about the future of tuna fishing came to a head in 2008, and drove the seafood industry to pull together and form a lobal coalition to address the issues.

Chicken of the Sea teamed up with competitors Bumble Bee and Starkist, scientists from WWF and other institutions and representatives of the fishing community to form the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF), with the goal of promoting sustainable tuna fishing and ecosystem health and eliminating illegal tuna catching.

While it was undertaking its own efforts, such as ensuring dolphin-safe tuna fishing and prohibiting shark finning aboard its supplier vessels (a process where the fins are retained and the remaining carcass is discarded at sea) Chicken of the Sea realized it lacked a systematic approach to sustainability.

So in 2011, it embarked on a year-long effort to document programs and collect data that would give it a better idea, formalized a new supplier code of conduct and shared sustainability challenges and opportunities with retailers, suppliers and consumers.

Emissions from freight

"We looked into supply chain operations, we looked at freight for incoming ingredients, packaging and finished product," said Jennifer Woofter with Strategic Sustainability Consulting, who was hired to analyze the company's carbon footprint. "It was quite comprehensive. We looked at ocean and intermodal freight transportation, which accounts for 80 percent of its carbon footprint."

Transportation turned out to be the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Until the 1980s Chicken of the Sea's tuna processing operations were primarily based in San Diego, where it originated in 1914. It was one of the last canneries to leave town when it shifted operations to the American Samoa. When a Thai seafood conglomerate bought the company, the bulk of its tuna fishing and processing shifted to Thailand, except for one tuna plant in Lyons, Ga.

With half of its tuna processed in Thailand and shipped elsewhere, ocean freight accounts for most of Chicken of the Sea's transportation emissions. Aside from freight, the balance of its emissions was mostly from plant operations. The Lyons plant handles the other half of its tuna processing.

Shifting operations from American Samoa to Lyons helped reduce the footprint, according to Erin Mrozek, consumer marketing manager at Chicken of the Sea.

"We had a much, much higher carbon footprint getting our product back to our distributors," she said. "We used to carry 6 to 8 weeks of inventory at a time; now we carry about 3 weeks."

In order to reduce its transportation footprint, the company tries to ship direct to its large customers whenever possible, bypassing its own warehouse and distribution centers.

At the Lyons plant, there's an onsite water treatment facility, semi-solid waste is composted and tuna waste is diverted as animal feed, resulting in 60 percent of its solid waste being diverted from landfills.

Woofter said one of the challenges with the plant was that there wasn't a lot of data to go by, since it began operations only in 2009, at which time the focus was on getting the plant up and running and incorporating sustainable measures alongside.

The company has set goals to further reduce edible and scrap metal waste by making changes to its processes.

Water was another concern, since the plant uses huge quantities. The bulk of the 250,000 gallons of water the plant uses each day is to thaw frozen tuna. Plans are afoot for new thawing chambers that will reduce water usage by close to two-thirds, down to 90,000 gallons a day.

Seafood industry's sustainability efforts

As an industry, the green initiatives the ISSF is pushing through are beginning to make an impact, although there have been challenges considering the seafood companies source from all over the world.

"As (we represent) 75 percent of the tuna producers in the world, ISSF is trying to (implement) an initiative to limit the number of boats that go out on the water," Mrozek said. "The regional fishery management organizations that govern specific bodies of water are the ones that can make it happen, but with the bulk of tuna processors pushing for it, it can be done."   

ISSF scientists onsite at tuna fishing communities give the stakeholders comprehensive reports on how the biomass of tuna is changing, how much bycatch is caught, and how quickly fish are regenerating. Bycatch is a reference to the other fish, aside from tuna, that are caught in the nets.

One of ISSF's key goals is to reduce the number of bycatch caught. The reports also reveal whether an area is at risk for overfishing.

"Tuna is a very migratory species, very challenging to track, but there are so many scientists out there doing it, so we're confident in the reports we publish," Mrozek said.

ISSF contracts with third-party auditors who go on board the fishing vessels its members buy from, to ensure authenticity of data collected. It also places video cameras on board the vessels, triggered to go off when nets are cast.

Tackling challenges

One of many trials is getting fishing communities in small island nations and small vessel groups to come on board the program, to invest in sustainability measures and improve fishing practices.

Considering that shelf-stable seafood sales have been flat for a few years, these sustainability initiatives will cost the companies a considerable chunk of change.

"We feel that it goes beyond public pressur: This is our livelihood and the fisherman's business," said Mrozek. "We have to be responsible and respect the ocean, so if it involves higher costs, then we have to invest in it."

Collaboration has made those costs easier to bear, she added. "With so many producers getting on board around the world, it is not all falling on one man's shoulders -- we're all able to share in the effort, costs and make an impact," Mrozek said.

In the three years that ISSF has been promoting a greener agenda, it has created awareness, but Mrozek said it will take a few more years before the impact in terms of fewer boats on the ocean or reduced bycatch can be quantified.

The foundation is currently reaching out to the next layer of decision makers, the retailers, to inform them about the science behind sustainability and the questions they should be asking their suppliers.

Will this change how people buy tuna?

"I don't know. Depending on their customers, the retailers will make their own decisions. Some have said thanks for the info, we will source only from ISSF suppliers, others have continued with their own suppliers while still others have said they will go with reports from other institutions," Mrozek said.

Back at company headquarters in San Diego, Chicken of the Sea is engaging its employees, who are bringing suggestions to the table.

"People are excited that the executive management is committed to improving things. You're going to see very exciting things from us in the future," Mrozek said.

Photo of canned tuna provided by Ben Bryant via Shutterstock.com.