The World of Aquaculture Certification

The World of Aquaculture Certification A salmon well boat alongside cages. Photo: Acoura

The benefits of responsible aquaculture and fisheries and the need to mitigate their environmental impacts are increasingly in the public consciousness. Combine this with the globalisation of food chains and suppliers and it is clear that the complexity and potential risks of the seafood industry have increased. Gill Banner-Stevens spoke to Martin Gill, Acoura’s Managing Director for Marine Services to get a picture of how things have changed, and likely further changes.

The role of assurance in seafood safety and sustainability has never been clearer. Robust assurance is the common thread that links the challenges facing organisations today and helps build a more sustainable future for us all. One provider of assurance services is Acoura, a British company acquired in 2016 by Lloyd’s Register (LR).

“With LR’s history stretching back over 250 years - combined with our collective presence in the marine and food sectors - the integration of fisheries and aquaculture into the service portfolio was an easy and natural move,” said Martin Gill, Acoura’s Managing Director for Marine Services who joined the company in 2002.

He explained that Acoura’s marine service offering began back in 1996. The Scottish Salmon Grower’s Association (SSGA) felt that it would be good to guide the future growth of the industry on the back of product quality standards. Scottish Quality Salmon (SQS), which was set up in 1992 by SSGA, was tasked with developing and launching the ‘Tartan Quality Mark’ Standard. This was one of the very first product certification schemes and was used primarily for marketing within the UK.

To meet the United Kingdom Accreditation Service’s (UKAS) requirements, the certification scheme had to be independently audited and certified, and thus Food Certification Scotland (FCS) was created, the first incarnation of what became Acoura. FCS, one of the few independent third-party certification bodies (CBs) in the UK at that time initially had just one client: the Scottish salmon industry. At a similar time SQS also applied and were accredited to produce and market their members’ farmed salmon under the prestigious ‘Label Rouge Scottish Farmed Salmon’ quality mark for the French market. This made Scottish salmon the first non-French food product, and the first fish product, to receive this endorsement by the French authorities.

As the reputation and success of FCS grew, Martin Gill and the other staff were successful in negotiating a management buyout of the company, and it morphed into Food Certification International (FCI). This marked a period of diversification. “For us, quite early on, the UK aquaculture sector became a mature market and we quickly started to look internationally, where the emergence of standards such as GlobalG.A.P. was seeing a growing interest from the aquaculture sector abroad,” he said. “We also applied to be able to provide assessment and certification against the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) Sustainable Fishing Standard and in 2007 we were accredited. From that standing start, we have now grown to become the global leader with over 40% of the MSC fisheries market.”

Private equity investment to drive the company’s growth was secured in 2012. FCI was acquired as part of a buy and build project to create a large, specialist risk management company, totally focused on the entire supply chain of food production. This new company came to be called Acoura. Now, with LR, the company is at an exciting juncture, poised to take on new challenges further afield.

“The great thing for me is that Acoura has access to ‘boots on the ground’. With access to 48 offices worldwide, we have people located in key growth markets such as in China, and other countries in southeast Asia, with local knowledge, experience and an understanding of how to do business in these regions,” he said.

“For us, as a member of Lloyd’s Register Foundation (LRF), that opens up a whole new scale to the range of services that we can offer, especially when combined with the complimentary management systems services provided by LR.”

At present, Acoura have seafood sector clients in around 40 countries. In terms of revenue, the split is around 60:40, with the majority of their business generated by the wild-capture fisheries sector and the balance coming from aquaculture. The company aims to become a more significant player within aquaculture certification in the near future.

“The aquaculture sector is relatively young; the percentage of total global aquaculture production that is certified is small. However, the demand for participation in aquaculture certification schemes is developing steadily. By definition, there is huge opportunity and room for growth,” Martin Gill said.

A market report on the seafood sector, prepared by the State of Sustainability Initiatives (SSI), shows that of the 140 million tonnes of seafood produced in 2015, 14% was certified. A further breakdown of this data shows that 20% of wild capture and 6% of aquaculture production was certified in 2015. The organisation’s ‘Standards and the Blue Economy’ report states that: “Certified aquaculture will dominate growth in certified seafood for the foreseeable future.”

Asia, which produces an estimated 90% of global aquaculture production, features heavily in the company’s ambitions; Acoura currently certify around only 2% of seafood in Asia but this is set to change.

“China, Southeast Asia and South America have been on my wish list for many years and now we find ourselves in a position where we can actually plan to resource expansion into these markets. Watch this space; in the main aquaculture markets, there is a big game of catch-up going on,” he said, commenting that LR are in market-leading position in the food safety arena, where they serve a wide range of assurance and training services, including bespoke solutions, to over 5000 clients worldwide, hence their interest in the food sector.
“These clients include some of the world’s biggest and best-known brands through to the smallest of suppliers. Their commitment to technology means that assurance becomes scalable and affordable - a vision that we share here at Acoura, along with the fact that we too are food specialists and, in the marine sector we have over 20 years’ experience of working as aquaculture and fishery specialists. That’s one of the main reasons we’ve been able to grow to where we are and have a reputation for competence and understanding of the sector.”

“It’s all about trying to be an efficient, cost effective and trustworthy partner for our clients as well – and potentially being able to meet all of their risk management needs across the international supply chains they operate in,” Martin Gill explained. “We know that seafood safety is often more than just a standard or scheme; from sustainable and responsible sourcing, through to quality and customised assurance services – LR can help.”

“Personally, I think we’ve reached a good home and it’s great that the profits generated by LR are re-invested back into science and technology,” he said. “The Lloyd’s Register Foundation, which owns LR, is Britain’s largest charity and it directs the majority of its funding into scientific research. LRF’s most relevant project for our sector is one that they’re running with the Wageningen University, looking at the viability of seaweed as a food, as a fuel source and also as a driver to counter greenhouse gas emissions, by using it to create biodegradable plastic in an effort to help reduce the plastic ocean.”

“For me, it’s important that any report that we generate in any country in the world can be looked at in the same way it will be looked at in the UK. If we issue a certificate, then we believe we have made every effort to have reached the right, independent decision in that the requirements of the standard have been met,” he said, adding that some companies inevitably fail the audit process and Acoura has the authority to suspend or remove a certificate from a participant.

“We have done that and, on many occasions, it can lead to the phone going crazy for a bit. But it’s done for a reason, and that’s why there are professional, accredited certification bodies that are independent and robust enough to be able to say yes, you’ve passed, or no, you’ve failed - go away and improve or address the issue and try again.”

The main scheme owners in the global arena of aquaculture standards are Global Good Agricultural Practice (GlobalG.A.P), Global Aquaculture Alliance - Best Aquaculture Practices (GAA BAP), the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) and Friend of the Sea (FOS) which, unlike the others, also includes wild fisheries in its scope.

All of the standard owners take a slightly different slant on sustainability issues which pertain to welfare, environmental and social aspects.

“Scheme owners have a responsibility to make sure that their communication to consumers is clear as to what their standard is really about and where it differentiates them in the marketplace,” he said, admitting that this multiplicity of standards does present a challenge to the industry.

“The level of audit burden on some sectors within the industry is quite high; often companies have to participate in a number of third party standards as well as submitting to second party standards required by the customer base, notably the major retailers.”

Not surprisingly, producers and processors are calling for some sort of equivalence through benchmarking to be recognised between standards, rather than having to submit to multiple audits.

“Very often, the various different standards have a high degree of overlap between them, sometimes as much as 80% of the clauses, although there may be small variations in the wording and intent of similar requirements. The ability to recognise equivalence would allow certification bodies to provide a more cost-effective service.”

The importance of including a social responsibility aspect in aquaculture standards becoming prevalent and in ASC there is a requirement for there to be a qualified social responsibility auditor as part of the assessment team, which includes a requirement to carry out on-site staff interviews.

“The other main schemes also contain social welfare related requirements, GlobalG.A.P. has its GRASP (GlobalG.A.P. Risk Assessment on Social Practice) requirements and GAA is also introducing social welfare requirements. Increased awareness and focus on this area is seen at every industry event related both to aquaculture and also increasingly to the commercial fishing space.”

Although certification bodies like Acoura and its parent, LR, are crucial to the certification process, they are, by definition, objective.

“With no shareholders of our own, we are independent and impartial in everything we do. You’ll never see us banging the drum for one particular standard over another – that’s not our role,” Martin Gill pointed out. “Our role is to be in the background, underpinning and giving confidence that the product is what it says on the label and yes, you can actually say that these farms or this fishery are actually doing what they say they do”.

He adds that Acoura actively make themselves available to sit in on industry and standard owner technical and oversight committees and offer their experience and expertise to scheme owners on ensuring the auditability of standards, as well as their compliance with the various ISO guidelines on conformity schemes.

“Whether dealing with farms, fisheries, food processors, restaurants or retailers we are one of the only service providers able to offer a complete range of compliance solutions aimed at reducing risk and improving compliance levels. From certification to advisory services, training and innovative online solutions, we work in partnership with our customers to tailor a service which addresses the exact issues they face,” Acoura’s Martin Gill said.

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