Traceability: How much is too much?
Friday,14 October,2011 07:51:34
If you have read any of my blogs you might gather that I am not a big fan of catch phrases like “sustainability,” “green,” “organic,” etc. Invariably they seem to be defined in terms that benefit the individuals or companies stating them and there is typically far from universal agreement as to what they mean and how to achieve them. Organic is a legal term and there are many purists who argue that it has little relationship to what they consider to be truly organic. You can add traceability to the list. As an auditor for what used to be referred to as the ACC (I would say soon to be, if not already, a former auditor) this was a subject of interest. Companies were required to use a standardized third party system to meet the intent of the standard. I noted that with few exceptions companies had already comprehensive systems in place and that the required system was little more than an additional cost.
What exactly did this mean? The requirement was to be able to trace the contents of a ready for market product all the way back to the origin of its components. The requirement for shrimp was to have the ability to trace shrimp back to the broodstock (or at least a batch of broodstock) that they were derived from. For fish, the idea was similar. A component of this was to be able to know what drugs and chemicals might have been used during the production process. Reliance of accuracy was based on written statements to the effect that no illegal drugs were used and a list of what drugs were used. This was backed up by lot testing (which varies from country to country since in some countries some tests are conducted by the government before harvesting is permitted while in others the backstop is the processing plant who may require the same thing). This is in countries where corruption is not only wide spread but so enmeshed in the fabric of daily living that it could be considered to be a cultural norm. Reliability of written statements, common sense would dictate, should be questionable.
Other than that I am still hard pressed as to understand what other purpose it serves. I certainly, as a consumer, have little concern that I can identify what hatchery tanks and whose farm the shrimp (or fish) on my dinner plate came from. Since my role as an auditor was to police compliance it made no difference if the companies that I was auditing understood that the requirement was in place to allow their buyers to be able to see where the shrimp (or fish) came from. Whose farm, what ponds, when were they stocked and when were they harvested? This is great information for managing a farm, but of questionable (no?) value to the consumer.
There has never been a widespread health problem associated with imported seafood in which the seafood when consumed directly by the consumer caused a problem. This is not to belittle the risks-they are real and worse so for certain individuals who are allergic or sensitive to some of the items of concern. Vigilance is absolutely necessary. Certainly there are some cases of food poisoning but these are usually a result of consumer practices, not related to the seafood directly. There are instances where seafood has been found to contain relatively low levels of specific chemicals that have been banned for use in aquaculture. While it certainly is prudent to limit our exposure to all types of chemicals, there is no scientific evidence that residues of any of these chemicals at a few parts per billion (PPB) pose any threat to the consumer. The ability of the producer to be able to identify where the product originated from when there are problems is essential to their business model. It is also critical in the event of a recall. However, does it protect me as a consumer? Somehow I have trouble wrapping my head around this. I am not aware of a single product recall where this was an issue. So as a consumer it seems to be of dubious benefit to me. What I want to know is that what I buy was produced responsibly (another catch word) in an environmentally friendly manner with a palatable level of social exploitation, that it is what I think I am buying and that it is not going to make me sick in the short term (poison me) or in the long term (give me liver cancer, etc.).
No protection is afforded to me by knowing intimate details of the production process. I get no comfort from knowing that someone can tell me what tank in what hatchery the fish I am eating on my plate came from. I also don’t want labels on the product telling me that the product is traceable or for that matter from some third party certification scheme, that as a consumer I know nothing about. I do not think that the average consumer cares either. They will buy based on price and as long as their perception of the quality is in line with what they expect this is not going to change. More educated consumers may believe that knowing that the product is traceable to a specific pair of broodstock in a specific farm is important or that a third party certification schemes stamp of approval means that the product is actually being produced in what someone has decided is a responsible manner, but the reality is that neither is necessarily true. I would feel safer if I knew that companies were being audited at random and not by appointment, that companies that did not comply were blacklisted instead of admonished to improve and then audited by appointment again a year or so later. So for the time being, if I am asked by someone what to do, my advice is to ignore the labels, smell the fish or shellfish and don’t buy it if it smells strongly. Ask your supplier what steps they take to ensure that the product is sustainable if you are genuinely concerned and learn as much as you can. There are a number of organizations that have either taken it upon themselves or have been tasked to assist companies in ensuring that they are sourcing safe and sustainable product. They can help provide perspective.