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January 27, 2010

Seafood eco-labelling – spoilt for choice?

As consumer awareness around seafood sustainability has grown, so has the number of certification schemes and recommended/avoid lists. But there is concern among industry advocates and NGOs that a lack of consistency across these schemes sends a confusing and even misleading message to consumers. Ben Cooper reports.

As consumer awareness around seafood sustainability has grown, so has the number of certification schemes and recommended/avoid lists. But there is concern among industry advocates and NGOs that a lack of consistency across these schemes sends a confusing and even misleading message to consumers. Ben Cooper reports.

Two recently-published reports have confirmed what most eco-conscious fish consumers would probably already know – that there is a wide range of certification schemes and eco-labels in the seafood market and that they do not always say the same thing.

A report published by WWF last week compared and rated some seven different certification schemes – namely the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), Naturland, Friend of the Sea, Krav, AIDCP, Mel-Japan and Southern Rocklobster – on their effectiveness in addressing the health of fisheries and oceans.

The MSC scheme scored well, coming out on top with just over 95% compliance with the assessment criteria. But the researchers found that the other assessed schemes did not evaluate fisheries across all criteria “to the extent required to support sustainable fishing and healthy oceans”.

Miguel Jorge, director of WWF’s International’s Marine Programme, said the study revealed “serious inadequacies in a number of eco-labels and cast doubt on their overall contribution to effective fisheries management and sustainability”.

WWF said the research identified significant differences in transparency, information availability, structure and accuracy of claims made by each scheme. With the exception of the MSC programme, all the other schemes had “substantial shortcomings” in transparency and information provision, the report stated.

Even the MSC scheme was “not perfect”, Jorge said, adding that “improvements are needed across the board to ensure all seafood eco-labels deliver on their promise”.

Leaving the merits of various schemes to one side, the proliferation of schemes is itself problematic in terms of putting over a clear and consistent message to consumers. “With the proliferation of eco-labels and the variability of these schemes there is a real risk of confusion,” Jorge adds, “or worse still a lack of confidence in seafood eco-labelling among buyers and consumers”.

Interestingly, a report commissioned by a coalition of fish industry organisations from the UK, Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Australia and New Zealand drew some similar conclusions.

The Fish Sustainability Information Group (FSIG) commissioned research into the different certification schemes and recommended/avoid lists currently available across a range of countries. The industry groups were particularly concerned that recommended lists published by campaigners are misleading, too simplistic or overly influenced by specific campaigning agendas.

The subsequent report, published late last year, concluded that there has indeed been  “a proliferation of national and supranational schemes” aimed at providing consumers and wholesalers with more and better information about sustainable fish. But it states that “a lack of consistency of approach and contradictory recommendations have the potential to confuse consumers, blur the differences between what’s good and what’s not, and erode the benefits of better information for purchasing decisions”.

Once again, the MSC scheme comes out well but Jon Harmon, development director at UK seafood body Seafish, believes the research raises some serious questions about recommended/avoid lists. “I remain very concerned about the recommendation lists because there is a lack of transparency, there is old data being used and quite often there is a campaigning agenda,” Harmon tells just-food.

Harmon believes precision is also “a big issue”, with some recommended lists insufficiently specific about how they categorise fish stocks, for example with regard to the different Atlantic cod fisheries “which are all doing different things”, but which some lists group together.

Regarding the possible standardisation of sustainability criteria, Harmon believes there is no need to go further than the guidelines published by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). Indeed, the FAO guidelines informed the criteria used by WWF in its report. The FAO is currently working on a set of guidelines on aquaculture to complement those it has already published on wild capture.

While Seafish clearly takes issue with the agenda and methods of some campaigning NGOs, there appears generally to be good spirit of cooperation between NGOs and industry in the seafood sector, which makes it all the more surprising that a more unified certification scheme for sustainable seafood has not yet emerged.

Harmon points out that in the UK only around 20% of consumers say they look for an indication that fish have been sustainably sourced when shopping for seafood and the percentage that change purchasing behaviour as a result would be below 10%. He believes it is the responsibility of retailers to ensure that all the fish they sell meet the FAO criteria, as part of their corporate social responsibility commitments. And he says by and large retailers are acting responsibly. Growing retailer activity in this area is by no means confined to the UK, as the announcement this week by Safeway in the US illustrates.

Sam Wilding of the Marine Conservation Society acknowledges that retailer awareness has had a positive effect but he believes there should be more standardisation about what terms such as ‘responsible’ and ‘sustainable’ signify.

However, Wilding believes this could be achieved through self-regulation and stakeholder cooperation, and like Harmon bears witness to the generally good relations that exist between different stakeholders in the seafood sector. Seafish’s Common Language Group, which includes groups representing fishermen, retailers, NGOs and government, would appear to be an ideal forum for such debate in the UK.

Given the plaudits afforded to the MSC programme, it would seem that this scheme would be a strong contender to become some form of sustainability ‘kite mark’.

If, as seems the case, the MSC is regarded by so many as being pre-eminent its expansion is likely to happen organically in any case. Launched in 1999, the MSC currently covers around 10% of the world’s edible wild caught fish, including 40% of the global prime whitefish catch (cod, Alaska pollock, hake, haddock, hoki and saithe).

Considering the rigour of the MSC criteria and its methodology, this is no mean achievement. But while even major certification schemes have only limited coverage, there will remain an important role for recommended lists to play.

James Simpson of the MSC believes that within five years, a “very large proportion” of seafood available in the UK will be eligible for the MSC scheme, but still believes there will be a role for recommended lists “for a long time to come”. All of which is likely to mean bones of contention between industry and campaigners over how ‘sustainability’ should be defined and precisely which stocks are sustainable and which are not is set to continue.

The research and the accompanying debate over seafood eco-labelling, certification schemes and recommended lists suggests consumers are spoilt for choice when it comes to advice on sustainability when buying fish. However, experience in the organic and Fairtrade sectors suggests that choice in this area is not always such a good thing, and that both consumers and environmental objectives are best served by simple and consistent messaging.

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