Alaska officials lobby Wal-Mart on salmon-critical move

ANCHORAGE, Alaska/SEATTLE Thu Sep 5, 2013 9:00pm EDT

The Wal-Mart company logo is seen outside a Wal-Mart Stores Inc company distribution center in Bentonville, Arkansas June 6, 2013. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

The Wal-Mart company logo is seen outside a Wal-Mart Stores Inc company distribution center in Bentonville, Arkansas June 6, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Rick Wilking

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska/SEATTLE (Reuters) - Alaska officials lobbied Wal-Mart Stores Inc on Thursday to keep selling the state's wild-caught salmon despite their decision to drop an environmental certification label required by the world's largest retailer.

Any decision on salmon by Wal-Mart, the largest food seller in the United States, and by possibly other companies, could ripple through the grocery industry and potentially harm Alaska's fishing-dependant economy.

Alaskan fishing and policy officials met with buyers at Wal-Mart's Bentonville, Arkansas, headquarters on Thursday, in an effort to convince the retailer their own internal regulatory system should suffice, the company said.

"We are optimistic that Walmart will recognize Alaska fisheries as sustainably managed," said Susan Bell, Commissioner of Alaska's Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development, who attended the meeting.

The issue emerged when roughly 40 salmon processors in the far-North state decided in 2012 to drop the internationally accepted blue ecolabel awarded by the London-based Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), saying it was expensive and eroded their brand.

They said their own control systems were enough and they would consider the Ireland-based Global Trust Certification, as a replacement.

Other companies have embraced the MSC certification as a key part of broad commitments they have made on sustainability.

Wal-Mart wrote a routine letter to its salmon suppliers in June warning them it requires its salmon to be MSC-certified as sustainable or working toward that distinction.

The meeting on Thursday covered monitoring and sustainability practices, such as third-party oversight and chain-of-custody reporting, and other issues, Wal-Mart spokesman Chris Schraeder said.

"We're selling it in our stores today and we intend to carry it well into the future," Schraeder said.

MSC-certified salmon is also largely favored by catering services company Sodexo, which serves thousands of American hospitals, schools, and military canteens, said Deborah Hecker, vice president of sustainability at Sodexo.

Some concessionaires at U.S. national parks briefly dropped the fish from their menus to comply with federal guidelines.

PRIZED STATE INDUSTRY

Walmart would not disclose how much Alaska salmon it buys or sells in its stores, and did not have a specific date when it would decide whether to accept Alaska's switch, Schraeder said.

Sodexo, which last year bought $22 million worth of Alaskan seafood, said it had no plans to change its salmon policy.

The value of Alaska seafood retailed abroad and in the United States was roughly $6.4 billion in 2011, according to McDowell Group, Inc, a research firm contracted by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI), nearly all of whose members dropped MSC.

More than 63,000 people worked in Alaska in seafood-industry jobs in 2011, making it the state's largest private-sector employer.

"What would be worrisome and very significant is if this were to become the trend or, far worse, the rule," said Gunnar Knapp, an economist at the University of Alaska Anchorage, referring to other retailers possibly dropping salmon that does not have the MRC seal.

MSC is an impartial non-profit that uses rigorous scientific methods to broadly assess environmental impact and traceability, said MSC spokesman Mike DeCesare.

Earning MSC's ecolabeling has cost Alaskan processors and others millions of dollars per year, said Tyson Fick, a spokesman for ASMI. Fick said MSC is the most prominent of the roughly 170 ecolabels in the U.S. and abroad he knows of.

Dozens of fishermen picketed an Anchorage Walmart on Wednesday, one waving a sign that read: "Buy American? Start With Alaskan Salmon!"

Alaskan salmon fisheries were first certified in 2000 and again in 2007. Processors opted-out in 2012. Some processors maintained traceability certificates and a separate group of companies has asked to be reassessed.

(Editing by Dina Kyriakidou, Bob Burgdorfer and Chris Gallagher)

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