As I wandered through the aisles of this year’s Seafood Expo North America, I was surprised but encouraged to see the word “traceable” displayed alongside the word “sustainable” on many booths.
The word sustainable, used on its own, has lost much of its meaning. Sustainability means so many things to so many different people that almost anyone can claim to be sustainable. Because companies know that seafood buyers and consumers will pay more for seafood that they believe is sustainable, they sprinkle the word on all their materials. The incessant use of the word sustainable, along with media coverage scrutinizing sustainability claims (such as last year’s NPR series), have reinforced customer fears that they’re getting bluewashed.
Although traceability has become the new buzzward in the seafood industry, it’s harder to fake than sustainability. When a seafood company provides a QR code on their package that you can scan to find the name of the boat, how it was caught, and date of catch, consumers can feel confident that they’re getting exactly what they paid for.
This year’s “Seafood Mislabeling & Fraud” panel was depressingly similar to the 2012 panel, “Can Seafood Substitution Be Stopped?” Seafood mislabeling is still rampant. While passage of the Safety and Fraud Enforcement for Seafood Act would be a good step forward for consumers and the seafood sector, we can’t count on government to solve this problem. Traceability technologies have become much more common and consumer friendly in the past two years. What if every piece of sushi had a QR code stamped on it (in edible ink, of course)?
Traceability has been the norm in other sectors, such as produce, for a long time, according to Trevor Morris, CEO of Edible Software, which provides full traceability capacity. “After 9/11, Congress passed the BioTerrorism Act, which required produce companies to trace their inventory.” Norris told me. “It could happen to the seafood industry next,” he said.
“Companies are taking steps to be traceable,” said Stephen Pratt of Trace Register, a traceability solution for the food industry. “If you’re willing to share the info, it shows you have nothing to hide,” he added.
Traceability requirements, of course, are already built into most certification standards. “Food fraud will be the big theme in aquaculture and seafood in general,” said Thomas Fenimore, Vice President of GLOBALG.A.P. North America. GLOBAL G.A.P., which covers every stage of production, includes traceability in its aquaculture standards.
The Global Aquaculture Alliance’s Best Aquaculture Practices also include traceability in their standards. “We do some traceability in the marketplace ourselves,” said Beverly Nelson, Program Manager, Best Aquaculture Practices, GAA. “We send out people to purchase the products in the grocery stores. And sometimes we do DNA testing.”
It’s encouraging to see traceability being adopted in so many ways throughout the industry. Hopefully, it’s not just a hot new number that will be worn this season, thrown out the next. If it becomes an industry norm, it will help restore consumer and buyer confidence in seafood, and that’s good for everybody.