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January 12, 2011

Chefs' group backs stand vs. eco-labels on seafood

In a public letter, the Chefs Collaborative has agreed with Legal Sea Foods President Roger Berkowitz that restaurateurs should do their own research rather than let so-called "eco-labelers" dictate what seafood to serve and what to shun.

"Thank you for sparking a dialogue regarding possible exceptions to 'blacklisted' seafood," the 18-year-old organization said in the posting on its website. "This is an issue that Chefs Collaborative has been working on for years.

"Back in 2007, we published a communiqué© for our members, titled 'Lists vs. Local: The Complexities of Sourcing Sustainable Seafood.' The document introduced the concept that lists can be a good starting point, but chefs need to take a broader and deeper approach, by talking with each other as well as with conservationists, fishermen, and purveyors."

Berkowitz sparked a new wave of debate with the announcement that he would host a dinner Jan. 24, to be prepared in the Legal Sea Food kitchen in Park Square, Boston, featuring cod cheeks, hake and tiger shrimp — all choices considered to be no-nos by the lead seafood eco-labeling organizations, notably Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch.

The evening — already sold out — is being sponsored by the Culinary Guild of New England, which helped define the lines of debate by promoting the event as featuring "so-called 'black-listed' fish," to "bring awareness to some of the inherent complexity that exists within sustainability in the seafood industry."

Carrie Richard, president of the Culinary Guild, said reaction has been evenly split — and surprising.

"We didn't know the firestorm this dinner would generate," she said in a telephone interview Wednesday. She added, however, that it arrives at just the right time, and creates "a perfect opportunity" for members to lead a deeper discussion of "the issues Roger is raising."

The argument Berkowitz picked is also coming at a moment in which consumer choices — from home kitchen cooks to elite chefs to the buyers for the great global chains right up to Wal-Mart — have come under intense competitive influence based on commercial partnerships and major nonprofits' environmental views.

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