Seafood assurance in the global supply chain

Seafood assurance in the global supply chain
 ​Polly Burns is Fisheries and Aquaculture Operations Manager, Customised Assurance at Lloyd’s Register

​Polly Burns, Fisheries and Aquaculture Operations Manager, Customised Assurance at Lloyd’s Register, outlines the value of seafood assurance and its critical role in maintaining quality and mitigating the environmental impacts of fishing and aquaculture. 

The global population is growing, climate change impacts are increasingly observed and overfishing of wild stocks is a great concern for consumers. The seafood sector faces demands to know the origin, production process and environmental impact of all the seafood products on the shelves, as consumers continue to ask more questions about what they are purchasing. Therefore, it is necessary to monitor the seafood supply chain to ensure seafood is responsibly sourced from sustainable fisheries and fish farms, in order to provide assurance for consumers.

Seafood mislabelling

As a result of numerous high-profile food scares, consumer trust in food suppliers and retailers has eroded. Regrettably, food fraud cases occur too regularly to be dismissed. Mislabelling, for example, is fraud whereby what you see or order is not what you get, and this type of illegal and misleading activity places consumers at risk.

A recent study by conservation group Oceana found that 21% of the 449 fish in their sample were incorrectly labelled. Likewise, researchers at the University of California in 2017 found that half of the sushi sold in Los Angeles was mislabelled on the menu.

Another instance of seafood mislabelling, took place over a period of five years, when a Virginia-based seafood company imported intentionally mislabelled crabmeat in volumes in excess of 180 tonnes over a period of five years. In September 2018, the vendor pleaded guilty to conspiring to pass off foreign crab meat as Atlantic blue crab. The seafood fraud committed put consumer safety at risk and undermined the work of honest and transparent fisheries in the USA and around the world.

As is expected of meat and vegetable supply chains, it is only fair that consumers making a seafood purchase get a product that is what it says it is, and the seafood industry must do more to confront rogue behaviour.

Responsible fishing

For shoppers looking to eat ethically and responsibly, choosing sustainable seafood is the way to go. But, with so much mislabelling occurring, how can consumers be certain that seafood businesses are not continuing to exploit them through food fraud? The answer to both issues is by selecting seafood products that have the MSC blue label.

The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) standard is for fisheries that reach a number of criteria, following a robust assessment of stock status, environmental impact and fisheries management, and therefore are permitted to use the blue tick logo on products and packaging. The blue label gives consumers assurance that the products they are purchasing have come from a fishery that has sustainable status according to the MSC’s criteria.

There is an increasing demand which is driving change. Producers with a sustainability focus, which also want to sell their products to retailers and other end-users, are beginning to find that MSC-labelling is a must-have. As a result, fisheries at the start of the supply chain need to seek the blue label to maintain market access and open new opportunities.

The number of food fraud cases can be driven down, but it will require producers to put fair dealing above fraudulent financial gains and sign-up to a certification scheme such as MSC. Fortunately, awareness among consumers is growing and many are now actively looking for the MSC blue label which offers the market reward for the certification.

Aquaculture assurance

Population growth and the relative increase in fish consumption means traditional land-based agriculture and wild capture fisheries can no longer sustain the world’s growing needs, therefore we are increasingly turning to farmed seafood. With mounting strain on the oceans caused by the climate and plastic crises, actions must be taken to ensure aquaculture sustainability.

Growth in aquaculture has exploded since the 1970s. While farmed fish accounted for only 10% of our consumption as recently as the 1980s, nowadays it provides almost as much of our seafood as commercial wild caught fisheries. It is crucial that the seafood sector implements systems to ensure it continues to meet demands, both in terms of consumption, and in terms of environmental and social criteria.

When it comes to aquaculture production, the Aquaculture Stewardship Council’s standards (ASC), developed in line with industry best practice and with input from NGOs, scientists, retailers and producers, are in place to encourage responsible fish farming.

The ASC has nine species-specific standards that seek to review legal requirements, environmental impact and social responsibility. The ASC farm standard focuses specifically on commercial aquaculture sites, examining farm management and environmental impact as well as social impact on employees and local areas.

The value of ASC certification is increasingly being recognised, with it rapidly becoming a requirement for those supplying fish to larger retailers. In recent years, global players such as Mowi have shown their commitment to ASC, while others including Nomad Foods (Findus) have started marketing ASC certified dishes to the market. Likewise, big retailers such as Walmart are also demonstrating commitment to long-term sustainability targets for seafood.

A consumer survey, undertaken by Cargill in 2017, highlighted higher demand for seafood than ever before, with 82% of Americans adding salmon, shrimp and tilapia to their plates. However, with fears rising over where their food is coming from, 88% are willing to pay more for seafood that is certified as sustainably and responsibly sourced.

What it says on the tin

The Chain of Custody Standard ensures that both the green ASC consumer logo and the blue MSC label are only displayed on seafood products that can be traced back to source, providing complete supply chain transparency. This means that consumers can feel confident that the product being purchased - from crab to cod - is what it says on the label and is sustainable.

At a time when food fraud is an increasing concern for consumers and those working in the industry, seafood assurance is an invaluable benefit. The time when fisheries could expect to get away with food fraud for over five years before anyone notices, as in the case of the Virginia crabmeat scandal, is nearing an end. It’s time for the good guys and girls of the industry to commit to certification and transparency.

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