By Mike Urch, Contributing Editor
Published on Monday, January 31, 2011
As the dust settles after Channel 4’s “Fish Fight” series on British television earlier this month, it will be interesting to see what effect, if any, it has on the global seafood industry.
The presenter of the first three programs, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, certainly highlighted what most people cannot understand about the European Common Fisheries Policy, and that is the practice of discarding fish that has already been caught. No other branch of the food industry would harvest product that was fit to eat and then throw it away. No wonder Fearnley-Whittingstall kept calling this practice “not only bad, but mad.”
He also rather cheekily illustrated that the English Fisheries Minister could not distinguish one common whitefish species from another, but unfortunately the UK has not been blessed with fisheries ministers who take a practical interest in the industry they represent.
However, it was a shock to discover the deficiencies in the systems that the UK’s top supermarket chain, Tesco, has, or should have, in place to ensure that it offers its customers fish caught by methods that protect the marine environment and its species, as it proudly boasts on its product labels.
Purse seining can hardly be claimed to be such a method, yet in conjunction with Greenpeace, Fearnley-Whittingstall showed a purse seiner in Ghana where two employees openly stated that tuna caught by this vessel was supplied to a tuna cannery which, in turn, supplied canned tuna to Tesco.
They also stated that species such as sharks, tortoises and dolphins were taken in the 3,000-meter net at the same time. And Tesco’s canned tuna carries a “dolphin friendly” logo.
In an interview to discuss the inaccurate labels on its own brand canned tuna, one of Tesco’s senior managers attempted to talk his way of the situation, but to no avail. In fact, he as good as admitted that he didn’t know how the tuna was caught that went into Tesco cans.
But worse was to follow. It was not just customers buying Tesco canned tuna who were being misled; those buying breaded cod fillets in the company’s UK stores were also not getting what they thought they were. A Dispatches program in the Fish Fight series showed that almost one-fifth of Tesco breaded cod fillets examined were from a threatened stock.
So what has happened to Tesco’s quality control? Do its technologists not check that it is actually being provided with the products presumably specified in its contracts with suppliers? And surely there should be systems in place to ensure that such basic errors don’t occur.
It might not have been such a serious matter in the days before supermarkets jumped on to the sustainability bandwagon. But now this is a big PR exercise and customers are continually being told that the seafood offered for sale by the UK supermarket chains has been responsibly sourced so that they — the customers — don’t have to worry whether what they buy is damaging already threatened stocks.
And customers take this message on board. They rely on the supermarket chains far more than the various logos which are now cluttering up the cans and cartons in which seafood is packed.
Following the Fish Fight series, and presumably in response to the Fearnley-Whittingstall and Greenpeace investigations, Tesco has announced that all the tuna it sells from the end of 2012 will be caught by pole-and-line.
It is to be hoped for its customers’ sake that in the meantime Tesco really does sort out its quality control and that the labels on its seafood products in the future provide an accurate description of what is inside.