Changing Planet

Does Your Favorite Restaurant Serve Ocean Destruction?

By Greenpeace Oceans Campaigner David Pinsky

Every time you eat in a restaurant, hospital, airport, university cafeteria, or even at a rock concert, it is likely that you are eating food provided by a large foodservice company. Sea of Distress, a brand new Greenpeace report, highlights which large food companies are failing to protect workers and our oceans.

Home to one million species, covering over seventy percent of our planet, providing life-sustaining oxygen (every other breath we take), and providing food for billions of people globally—the world’s oceans are a beautiful and mysterious place. Like many ecosystems on planet Earth, our oceans are under constant threats from climate change to pollution. The global seafood industry is quite effective at emptying our oceans in the quest for profits, leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of sea turtles, seabirds, and up to 100 million sharks a year all while driving some fish stocks toward the brink of collapse.

We are in dangerous waters as the global seafood industry continues to expand and increase the amount of seafood it produces every year. Despite the science, corporate greed continues to harm the world’s oceans and the people who work to supply seafood or rely on it for their livelihoods. Since the 1970s, Greenpeace has campaigned to protect marine life and the world’s oceans. Today our mission is ever more critical.

The U.S. is a big market for seafood with the power to globally influence whether companies properly steward the oceans or continue to exploit them. Every day, roughly half of the money Americans spend on food outside the home is gobbled up by the foodservice industry. But, what exactly is foodservice? Companies that buy, transport, cook, or serve the food you get at Subway, Burger King, a Beyoncé show or the Super Bowl, Walmart corporate cafeterias, the University of Kentucky, Chicago Public Schools, Yosemite National Park, Hilton hotels, or even in the U.S. Capitol’s cafeterias.

Some large clients of U.S. foodservice companies.
Some large clients of U.S. foodservice companies.

Foodservice is one of the largest industries we frequent often, but most of us know nothing about. These companies buy and sell billions of dollars of seafood annually, and some of it is destructively caught and potentially connected to forced labor. Consumers have a right to know where their seafood comes from, and whether the establishments where they go out to eat are linked to ocean destruction or forced labor.

How do the companies rank that supply and serve up tuna at Subway, fried shrimp at Disney World, or a tuna salad sandwich in a cafeteria for Toyota employees?

Glad you asked.

A new Greenpeace report, Sea of Distress, ranks the seafood sustainability and social responsibility of foodservice companies. Just three companies passed: Sodexo, Compass Group, and Aramark, while two of the largest companies—Sysco and US Foods—are among the twelve that failed.

scorecard gradient retailers v4


Many companies are supplied by Thai Union Group, the largest tuna company in the world that owns U.S. brand Chicken of the Sea and supplies supermarkets like Walmart and Kroger. Thai Union is notorious for ocean destruction. And some of its seafood supply chains have been linked to human rights abuses, where seafood workers were forced to work under horrendous conditions for months with no escape. From the halls of Congress to your university, favorite restaurant, or workplace – you could be eating seafood connected to ocean destruction or human rights abuses.

It’s easy to make informed choices at the supermarket, but when you’re eating in a cafeteria or at a football game you could be eating seafood connected to ocean destruction or even human rights abuses and you’d never know.

Foodservice companies (e.g., Sysco, US Foods), large clients (e.g., Subway, Yosemite National Park, Kroger), and consumers have the power to transform a global industry ripping up the sea and exploiting workers. It’s time for companies profiting off of ocean destruction and mistreated workers to change. For example, as one of the nation’s largest supermarket chains, Kroger could demand that Syscoits supplier for food at delis and convenience stores nationwideonly provide sustainable, ethical canned tuna. To honor Kroger’s request, Sysco could in turn demand that one of its tuna suppliersThai Unionguarantee that any tuna it provides Sysco is sustainably and ethically caught, requiring the tuna giant improve its operations and helping to create change on the water.

Both foodservice companies and their clients need to have strong, public-facing policies that ensure they only provide sustainable seafood and protect workers’ rights from the U.S. to Southeast Asia. Consumers deserve traceable seafood, transparency, and a guarantee that their hard-earned money is not supporting ocean destruction or forced labor.

Whether you’re grabbing a snack at a Kroger deli, sitting down for dinner at Red Lobster, or getting lunch between classes at George Washington University, ask the person serving you seafood if it is supplied by Thai Union. Ask whether it is green-rated “Best Choice” seafood according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Ask if the food provider guarantees that the seafood it serves is sustainably and ethically procured. If you don’t like their responses, take your business elsewhere. You can also try reducing your seafood consumption to help lessen pressure on our oceans and ensure fish for the future.

To learn more about the best and worst performing companies, check out Sea of Distress.

13782189_10154461747539684_8877595772590983255_nGreenpeace is the leading independent campaigning organization that uses peaceful protest and creative communication to expose global environmental problems and to promote solutions that are essential to a green and peaceful future.

Greenpeace is the leading independent campaigning organization that uses peaceful protest and creative communication to expose global environmental problems and to promote solutions that are essential to a green and peaceful future.
  • Alan Smithee

    While I applaud Greenpeace’s commitment toward protecting our natural resources, especially our seas, I cannot support fatally flawed studies such as this.
    Publishing un-scientific studies that lack any statistical rigor or third-party verification does a disservice to the movement and further damages Greenpeace’s credibility. It makes it too easy for corporations to debunk the work and undermine the cause in general.
    To find broad acceptance of it’s mission and philosophies Greenpeace must avoid using the tactics of extremists and adopt academically rigorous processes.
    The sad fact is that only 3 corporations participated fully in your study (coincidentally your top 3 scorers). Assigning scores to the others based on your ‘best guess’ of what their responses would be is unprofessional and misleading. Instead, you should be asking yourselves how to better incentivize their participation.
    Further, lumping customers in with the broadliners that service them is like comparing apples to oranges. In the context of this study, for example, Sodexo is the customer (with the power to create demand for sustainable products) while Sysco is the service provider. Sysco’s role is to carry the products its customers demand, whether they meet Sustainable standards or not. The fact is that MSC certified Pole and Line caught tuna is more expensive than conventional and cannot be forced on the market. Broadliners will never discontinue carrying these products as long as significant demand exists. Blaming them for doing so is pointless, since their role is to distribute the products their customers demand. They are not arbiters of what is or is not sustainable, and refusing to carry conventional seafood would cause a huge financial hit.
    Instead, Greenpeace’s focus should be on convincing consumers and the service providers closest to them (like Sodexo). Foodservice broadliners are at best twice removed and are only reflections of the marketplace.
    Furthermore, your survey assumes that the self-reported responses are gospel fact. In reality, many companies use their policies as guidelines and are very willing to play loose with the requirements when it’s financially expedient. One of your 3 participating companies, for example, initially required canned tuna products to be exclusively pole and line caught but abandoned the stipulation once the market firmed up and it became too expensive.
    Changing the minds of consumers and lawmakers is the only path to success. Corporations’ policies will never converge with Greenpeace objectives unless they feel it’s in their own financial interest.

  • Our assessment and recommendations are based on best available science and leading experts. Company inventories were benchmarked against a respected sustainability measure, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch recommendations.

    There is no “best guess” scoring, which is why Sysco, US Foods, Centerplate, and the eight other profiled companies failed. While we use all publicly available data to assess a company’s performance, even Sysco, which has worked for years to improve its seafood program, failed because of the lack of publicly available data on its policies, procurement, and advocacy efforts. Transparency for customers matters.

    Greenpeace notified all 15 companies in November 2015 that they would be included in the report. In December 2015, each company received the seven-page survey. While a handful of companies provided some information, they refused to participate in the survey process, thus Greenpeace cannot “guess” how a company is performing. Perhaps when large clients and consumers learn about the lack of transparency from broadline distributors and management companies they will raise their concerns directly with the companies.

    As you indicate, protecting our oceans is an incredibly important issue. Allowing Sysco and other broadline distributors off the hook because they must cater to a customer’s demand for seafood–whether sustainable or not–is unacceptable. If Sysco and other large foodservice companies plan to continue profiting off of our oceans, it is time to act responsibly and only provide sustainable, ethical seafood. Reinhart Foodservice sells bluefin tuna. Are you suggesting Reinhart should continue to sell an extremely threatened species because it needs to satisfy customers and maintain its profits? If that’s the model you suggest companies follow, foodservice will be in dire straights in the coming decades as overcapacity and destructive fishing continue to decimate our oceans.

    Thank you for raising the point about loose policy compliance. This is why Greenpeace asks companies to make public commitments and post their policies online — so they will be held accountable. A broken system rewarding profits at the expense of non-compliance with policies, unsustainable fishing, and potentially unethical fishing is exactly why groups like Greenpeace are fighting to change the market.

    I absolutely agree that influencing consumers and lawmakers is a pathway to improvements. We need culture change, consumers educated about sustainable seafood, and policies in place from governments and RFMOs that will protect our oceans for generations to come. That’s why we’re working hard to change big companies that so effectively lobby government and RFMOs; that actively work to maintain the status quo despite the science. That’s why we listed big name clients in the report from United Airlines to Yosemite National Park to Disney World. That’s why we’ve sent this report directly to leadership at many of those clients and to government officials. And that’s why we’re blogging about our findings on National Geographic’s site, so concerned citizens can learn more and help take action.

    Thank you for your feedback. Together we can change the foodservice industry and global seafood industry.

    -David Pinsky

About the Blog

Researchers, conservationists, and others share stories, insights and ideas about Our Changing Planet, Wildlife & Wild Spaces, and The Human Journey. More than 50,000 comments have been added to 10,000 posts. Explore the list alongside to dive deeper into some of the most popular categories of the National Geographic Society’s conversation platform Voices.

Opinions are those of the blogger and/or the blogger’s organization, and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Posters of blogs and comments are required to observe National Geographic’s community rules and other terms of service.

Voices director: David Braun (

Social Media