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Alaska officials lobby Wal-Mart on salmon-critical move

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

By Yereth Rosen and Eric M. Johnson

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 were meeting with buyers at Wal-Mart's Bentonville, Arkansas, headquarters on Thursday, in an effort to convince the retailer their own internal auditing system should suffice, the company said.

The issue emerged when dozens of 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.

The move conflicted with companies who have embraced the MSC certification as a lynchpin of broad public commitments to the environment.

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.

"There are some pretty serious, broad implications with switching," Walmart spokesman Chris Schraeder said, adding that issues such as third-party oversight, chain-of-custody reporting, and fishery improvement were key.

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.

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

PRIZED STATE INDUSTRY

Walmart did not have a specific date when it would decide whether to accept Alaska's switch, Schraeder said. Sodexo said it had no plans to change it 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, a non-profit, has been considered a paragon in assessing fisheries for environmental impact and traceability but it has faced criticism that its practices have slipped or amounted to label racketeering.

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.

U.S. Senator Mark Begich from Alaska in an August 16 letter to Sodexo, the world's number two catering services company, wrote: "We don't need outsiders to tell us how to manage our stocks."

(Editing by Dina Kyriakidou and Bob Burgdorfer)

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