Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A little fish with your STPP, madam ?

I dont watch much TV. But this week I caught an investigative documentary called Kolbotek. I was rivetted, shocked and scandalized. My flabber was gasted, my ass was tounded and my over was whelmed, as they say in Manchester. Here's the story.

Fish importers have a choice betwen quality and price. If they go for (low) price, they purchase fish which is packed in China, in a packing process which first picks out  wriggling worms from the freshly caught fish by hand using tweezers, bangs holes in the fish so that it will absorb water and chemicals, immerses the fish in a water-STPP solution in order to make it look bloated and bigger than it really is, shakes it around so that everything gets properly absorbed, and finally, freezes and packs it, without any indication of the volume of water in the pack, in many cases without indicating the presence of STPP. STPP (sodium tripolyphospate) is a commonly used preservative, but in this case, it serves to ensure maximum water retention so that when frozen, what is a kilo of fish, is actually 50% or more water. So when we have bought frozen fish, we have been buying more chemically treated water than fish, and paying a high cost for this privilege.

On revelation of this irresponsible trickery in the fish industry, some Israeli grocery chains responded. Shufersal was the first to make an unconditional recall of all relevant fish products and take them off the shelves. Another private chain, Rami Levy has also removed products. Other retailers are "considering". Now, some thoughts:

So first, I want to congratulate (and thank) this fast response by Israel's largest grocery. Clearly the responsible thing to do. Beyond Compliance. An act which will give them extra  points both in my mind and on my credit card account. And I hope many others.  Shufersal is a big player, over 240 stores, over 10,000 employees and over $2.5 million in annual revenues. Despite this demonstration of responsibility, aside from financial reports, we are not treated to any additional level of transparency. The only thing that resembles Corporate Responsibility on their local language website is a Code of Ethics, though their corporate vision stresses leadership. Where is Shufersal's commitment to responsible consumerism, to greening of the retail chain, to responsible workplace and supply chain practices ? Who knows! This act of responsibility counts in their favour, but a thorough lack of transparency is a big opportunity for this chain to truly lead the Israeli grocery industry to new levels of sustainability.How about a first CSR report, Shufersal ?

Second, I want to know who trains the buyers of the retail grocery chains, and what standards, if any, they work to. This fish thing is a complete scam. A knowingly deliberate act to mislead consumers in the interest of higher profits. Who questions this? Where are the ethical purchasing training courses? My consulting business has  recently forged an alliance  with the Israel Purchasing and Logistics Managers Association, to assist the development of ethical, responsible and green purchasing practices. I think I might suggest we start with grocery retailers. 

Third, I took a look at CSR in the fish industry. There are many issues we have been aware of for years regarding the fish industry and sustainable fisheries. The Marine Stewardship CounciI was established by Unilever and the WWF in 1995 to address safeguarding seafood supply and mitigate the impact of overfishing on the marine environment. The work done by the Council since then in controlling and establishing fishery standards is applaudable. But a site search didn't bring up the issue of STPP. I found a nice CSR report by MarineHarvest for 2008 no mention of STPP there either.  Seems to me that there is a loophole of awareness here, which I suspect may be exploited in other markets at the expense of consumers everywhere. So folks, check your labels, ask questions of your retailers, and if all else fails, go off fish. At least, the STPP flavored kind.

elaine cohen is the joint CEO of BeyondBusiness, a leading reporting and social-environmental consulting firm based in Israel. Visit our website at: 


David Coethica said...

It never fails to ass tound me when stories like this are made public. How many blind eyes are there in this world?

I'm really interested in the big global grocers views on this - any news from Walmart, Tesco etc?

elaine said...

Thanks for your comment, David. I agree. Doesn't ANYONE in ANY of these supply chains have ANY thought about the total dishonesty of their systems? Still, sooner or later, the truth will out....


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