Loblaws will be the first retailer in North America to sell a new type of responsibly farmed salmon, an offering it hopes will differentiate grocery store chain amid intense competition from its rivals.
Loblaws, which is also the country's biggest buyer and seller of seafood, said the decision to stock Atlantic salmon certified by the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) will give customers more choice when selecting responsibly farmed fish.
The ASC is an independent, not-for-profit organization based in the Netherlands that certifies responsible seafood farms, processors and distributors around the world that produce Atlantic salmon, Arctic char, shrimp, mussels and oysters.
Melanie Agopian, senior director of seafood sustainability with the supermarket chain, said only one Atlantic fish farm in Norway has been approved by the group, which introduced the standards late last year.
"We are excited to bring this market to Canada," she said.
ASC a 'rigorous' standard
Currently, ASC-approved farmed Atlantic salmon is only sold in Japan and Europe.
The B.C. Salmon Farmers Association says a number of Canadian farms have achieved sustainability certification through other agencies, with three fish farms aiming to achieve ASC standards by 2020.
"It shows the feasibility and that the industry is moving in that direction, but it is a rigorous standard," said Agopian.
ASC-certified farms address social and environmental concerns, such as waste production, precautions to manage and stop the transfer of disease and how the feed is sourced and used.
Agopian said the Atlantic salmon will be sold at fresh fish counters at select Loblaws and Zehrs stores in Ontario and Quebec, beginning in early April.
It already sells ASC-approved tilapia and says it only sells seafood at its stores from sustainable sources.
About 60 per cent of all fish sold in Loblaws is farmed, the company said.
'It's about differentiation'
Like other Canadian retailers, Loblaw is losing market share to domestic and foreign competitors — including Sobeys, Metro, Walmart and the newcomer Target, which entered the food business in Canada about a year ago.
The retail chains have consolidated in the past year, cut prices and tried to differentiate their offerings in a bid to lure in more customers.
Kevin Grier doesn't think this latest move by Loblaws is necessarily due to consumer demand for responsibly farmed fish but rather an attempt by the food giant to stand out against its competitors.
'It's not due to consumer demand.' - Kevin Grier, market analyst
"Store after store, it's about differentiation of the product and differentiation [of] the store," said Grier, senior market analyst with the George Morris Centre, an independent economic research centre in Guelph, Ont., focused on agriculture and food.
He said that consumers are more concerned about the safety of their food and price rather than whether farming practices meet any globally accepted standards.
"It's not due to consumer demand. [The industry] keeps on telling them it's something to worry about, and they will, eventually," Grier added.
Rick Routledge, the acting director of environmental science at B.C.'s Simon Fraser University, said grocery stores and restaurants tend to stock fresh farmed salmon because of its abundance compared to wild salmon, which is only available in summer and early fall season.
He noted that there are concerns about salmon fisheries, such as the spread of viruses and sea lice, and the potential impact on wild salmon stocks.
"There are good reasons for people to take a careful look at whether they want to eat any farmed salmon, especially produced on the Pacific Coast here," said Routledge, who is also an ecological statistician.