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UK fish eating habits die hard

12th June 2007

The leading recipe magazines sell millions of copies and feature many fish recipes. Could they be hastening the destruction of endangered fish stocks?

Would you eat a fish pie or fish fingers made with pollack or whiting rather than cod?

The Food Magazine wanted to see what sort of information is given about fish and sustainability in some of the most popular magazines in the UK. We surveyed magazines which specialise in (or make recommendations about) food, i.e. ones with recipes and those with a strong food / lifestyle element.

On average, we looked at two consecutive issues of sixteen different magazines, with a total of 184 seafood recipes between them. The survey is not intended to be comprehensive or an indication of individual magazines’ editorial policies, but rather an attempt to gauge whether sustainable seafood is perceived as an important issue and if consumer advice is given.

We checked out: Do magazines promote any information about sustainability with recipes or in general; do they give information about method of catch or ocean; do they promote the same seafoods repeatedly, or do they encourage choice within sustainability criteria; how consistent is their message and what do celebrity chefs' recipes include? Here’s how they rated:

Top of the class with good information about sustainable fish: BBC Good Food and Delicious.

Okay, but could do better. Some degree of information: BBC Olive, Country Kitchen, Good Housekeeping and Weightwatchers.

Bottom of the class with absolutely no mention of sustainability: She, Prima, Top Sante (1 issue), Best, Zest, Lighter Life (1 issue), Food and Travel, Diet & Fitness, Slimming World, Fresh (1 issue).

Between them, the magazines have a circulation of around 3 million every month; Good Housekeeping sells to around five million readers a year, BBC Good Food to around 4 million. That is a significant audience which surely offers a wonderful opportunity to promote messages about sustainable seafood.

Fast fish facts from the survey

Over 1.5 million readers a month get no information on the importance of sourcing fish sustainably.

Tiger prawns specified nine times, with no sourcing information, despite some stocks being at huge risk.

MSC logoMarine Stewardship Council (MSC) logo appeared only once (see right).

Cod, haddock, tuna, and prawns account for as much as 80% of sales in the UK; these are also the top fish in the magazines, along with salmon, appearing 118 times in recipes, putting ever more pressure on stocks.

Top of the class

BBC Good Food was streets ahead in the way that it put information about sustainability and fish throughout the magazine, next to recipes and not just in a single article. The magazine repeatedly mentioned the need to choose fish from a sustainable source; the information was often given in bright boxes, next to recipes.

The magazine ran special features on the topic such as a lengthy item on seafood and sustainability. That article included recipes for unusual varieties of fish from sustainable sources. BBC Good Food offered a range of choices of fish with many recipes; it also suggested open choices, such as white fish, rather than specifying cod or haddock. Some recipes included information on method of catch – line caught – or information on rearing – organic.

Delicious also made efforts to put information throughout the magazine and in a specialist article on the topic. Some recipes in the magazine offered alternatives, such as red snapper for mackerel, that were positively rated on the Marine Conservation Society's (MCS) site and which might not have been immediately obvious to cooks. The magazine also suggested white fish rather than specifying a species in recipes.

Delicious recipes also specified particular fish species that are well rated by the MCS. The magazine was beaten to the top spot by BBC Good Food as that magazine shouted a bit louder about sustainable fish; it was easier just to flick through and notice that the issue was important.

Okay, but could do better

Only four other magazines – BBC Olive, Country Kitchen, Weightwatchers and Good Housekeeping - included any information useful to the reader interested in sustainable fish. Of these, BBC Olive was the best. The magazine’s Editorial page includes a section that makes promises to readers, including one to use sustainable fish; however, this did not appear in both editions. The magazine did make some effort to leave open choices, such as white fish, but generally failed to offer much information at all about the fish it recommended.

Country Kitchen promotes British food, and as a consequence of this did to some extent discuss locality and seasonality in relation to fish, but was otherwise disappointing. Good Housekeeping makes it into this section because of one thing; it put the MSC logo with a sentence of explanation in an article about food labelling. Weightwatchers had a single paragraph on sustainable fish and mentioned www.fishonline.org.

Contradictions and inconsistency

Even the magazines that did best suffered somewhat from contradictions and inconsistency in their editorial approach.

BBC Good Food might have done best in our survey, but it is not 100% consistent. For instance, it suggests prawns with no further sourcing information. The magazine also includes a full page ad for the company Frozen Fish Direct – the company’s website promotes its cheapness, quality and convenience but not sustainability. It sells tiger prawns and skate, which is a stock in terrible condition and a ‘Fish to avoid’. The magazine has a seasonal section, it includes conger eel – a seafood that Greenpeace has asked supermarkets to stop selling. Ironically, the seasonal column also suggests looking out for MSC certified fish in season.

Delicious includes a five page article which includes a couple of recipes for sustainable fish; the piece mentions the MSC but does not show the logo, and it does not appear elsewhere in the magazine. It does not promote the MSC logo even when recommending choices that are certified such as Alaskan Red salmon. The magazine also includes recipes for fish that have mixed reports, including halibut, some of sources of which are ‘Fish to avoid’ and others, such as monkfish, squid, tuna and prawns where checking the source is important. The magazine makes regular suggestions for alternatives, but their information policy lacks consistency.

BBC Olive makes a pitch on the Editor’s page in one edition, “Where possible we use…sustainably caught fish,“ but does not repeat it in the next. Even in the edition for which it makes the suggestion, tiger prawns appear in a recipe; the magazine chefs might have sourced these organically farmed (as recommended by the MSC) so why didn’t they tell their readers to do so? Other recipes suggest tuna steaks or salmon, without suggesting sourcing information.

Country Kitchen promotes British food, tradition, and local eating, but this is not necessarily linked to sustainability. It recommends elvers as seasonal; these are on the MCS to avoid list. The magazine uses prawns, salmon, herring, haddock and other fish with no mention of sustainability in sourcing.

In an article on food labeling, Good Housekeeping gives brief mention of the MSC logo and shows it; but then there is no particular attempt in the magazine to encourage or recommend sustainable choices.

Celebrity chefs

Gary Rhodes, in BBC Good Food, gives a tip in his recipe for roast halibut steaks. ‘’Buy your halibut from a sustainable source.” This is vital advice considering halibut from both Greenland and Atlantic is on the MCS ‘Fish to avoid’ list. More worryingly, two pages earlier he has a recipe for seared tiger prawns, also appearing on the ‘Fish to avoid’ list with no advice on sourcing, i.e. to look for organically farmed.

In Good Housekeeping, Head Chef of Petersham Nurseries, Skye Gyngell, includes her recipe for bouillabaisse with no mention of fish sourcing. Her recipe includes seafood found on the ‘Fish to avoid’ list - tiger prawns, and turbot (a problem if it is from the North Sea).

Fish to eat, fish to avoid

This is a hard one; magazines do not generally go out of their way to specify unsustainable fish. It is more a lack of information that bedevils us. For example, cod is used repeatedly in recipes with no mention of catch method or ocean; only BBC Good Food mentions that it is worth seeking out line caught or organic farmed.

Tuna is mentioned repeatedly in the magazines, with no opportunity ever taken to specify within a recipe which tuna it is best to look out for. The Marine Conservation Society is particularly concerned about tuna stocks worldwide. Over 1.5 million readers a month get no information on the importance of sourcing fish sustainably. Tiger prawns are on the ‘Fish to avoid’ list unless they are organically farmed, and yet we did not see this source recommended in any of the recipes we looked at.

Even when magazines take care to make specific suggestions with regard to sustainability criteria, it can still be difficult for the consumer. Delicious suggests the use of cold water prawns, a better choice than warm water prawns. But, the MCS website suggests, “The status of prawn stocks is generally unknown and subject to large natural fluctuations. Increase the sustainability of the fish you eat by only choosing prawns taken in fisheries using sorting grids to reduce by-catch of non-target species.” It is difficult to be clear just where a consumer might find this level of detail about the prawns they are purchasing.

What should the magazines do?

  • Have a consistent approach to promoting sustainable sourcing of fish.
  • Make sure the MSC logo appears in each issue.
  • Do not include recipes for seafood on the ‘Fish to avoid’ list.
  • Include a wider range of recipes, particularly for seafood recommended by the MCS.
  • Get celebrity chefs to take particular care about which seafood they promote.
  • Finding out which fish to buy can be complicated, but it is very important with so many fish stocks in crisis. Magazine editors are in a position to guide millions of readers to make the right choices, and must do so now.

Useful resources

Visit the Marine Stewardship Council's (MSC) website at http://eng.msc.org. The MSC works to safeguard the world’s seafood supply by promoting the best environmental choice.

Visit the Marine Conservation Society's (MCS) website at http://www.mcsuk.org. The MCS is a UK charity dedicated to caring for our seas, shores and wildlife.

The following pages may also be of interest