By Jason Holland, SeafoodSource contributing editor reporting from London
Published on 03 October, 2013
Opinion is divided about how much detail should be given in the on-pack labeling for seafood sold in Europe. There are those involved in the sector that believe too much information puts retail consumers off buying products, while others feel it provides the assurances that shoppers now want.
The recent Westminster Food & Nutrition Forum Keynote Seminar, “Next steps for U.K. fishing — consumer attitudes, sustainability and implementing the Common Fisheries Policy,” held in London, proved there are valid arguments on either side, but both will be aware that Brussels is pushing hard for the introduction of far more comprehensive fish labeling across EU member states as part of its Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) overhaul.
Fish labeling can be confusing for consumers; they want sustainable, convenient products that are available to them on a regular basis, but at the same time they are restrained in terms of time, said Adam Whittle, seafood industry consultant at the Billingsgate Seafood School. He added that they are also put off by “confusing messages” about products such as mackerel and whether it is okay to continue putting it in the shopping basket.
“People expect to be able to walk into a supermarket and for that supermarket to do the work for the individual. They don’t want to have to make those choices, they are outsourcing that trust to those organizations to spend the time and offer them a sustainable product without them having to feel guilty about enjoying such a healthy food.
“It’s too much, I think, to expect consumers to navigate through the minefield of sourcing sustainable seafood. I think it is catering service organizations like M&J Seafood, like Direct Seafoods, and the major multiple retailers who have to be the gatekeepers towards that sustainable product for consumers.”
Melissa Pritchard, Marine Science & Policy Adviser for ClientEarth and Coordinator for the Sustainable Seafood Coalition (SSC) told the forum delegates she believes labeling is valued by consumers, particularly following the pan-European horse meat scandal that came to light in January this year.
She said it can help consumers make informed buying decisions and 60 percent of consumers are willing to pay more for responsibly sourced fish.
“It can also help with the businesses’ reputation by helping them to demonstrate that they’ve responsibly sourced their fish, and in some cases it can actually create a price premium for product; that can be by eco-labels, but it can also be by the claims being made on the fish.”
For example, U.K. consumers have shown that they're willing to pay 22 percent extra for fish that is labeled as “line-caught,” she said.
EU Fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki has made it abundantly clear that in the future she wants much more detail included in the labeling of fish products.
Within the CFP reform package, the Common Markets Organisation (CMO) has two proposals with regards to labeling. The first is a new EU eco-label to help consumers identify ecologically sustainable fisheries products. If the law is passed, then the European Commission will conduct a feasibility study in consultation with stakeholders. It would then submit a report by 2015 on whether an eco-label would be useful in fish.
The second proposal comprises changes for fish labeling. As well as wanting the scientific name of the species, it’s also asking for the fishing gear method to be labeled and the specific catch area, so instead of saying, for example, the “North East Atlantic” which is what's currently required, it would have show the specific area such as the “North Sea.”
“But these requirements don’t apply equally to aquaculture products, so you won't see the aquaculture method being labeled on the product, and that could confuse the consumer in itself,” said Pritchard.
Meanwhile, the SSC, which ClientEarth founded in 2011 and has 27 members, including Tesco, Waitrose, Marks & Spencer and Birds Eye, is close to finalizing its voluntary code of conduct to make seafood labeling consistent and easy for U.K. consumers to understand with accurate information on sustainability and responsible sourcing.
First drafted in April, the “SSC Code of Conduct on Environmental Labeling and Self-Declared Environmental claims of Fish and Seafood” sets out minimum commitments made by the members regarding voluntary environmental labeling, including self-declared environmental claims on or in relation to their own fish whether used on product labels, menus, in-store signs, or other communications.
The code, which was the first ever seafood labeling code proposed by U.K. retailers, is also supposed to ensure that self-declared environmental claims have a consistent meaning in the market and avoid misleading consumers.
According to the SSC, voluntary environmental labeling and self-declared environmental claims that don’t meet its minimum criteria will not be made at all. Its minimum criteria include having an independently audited chain of custody with sufficient measures in place to trace the fish from its source fishery through all subsequent stages of fish landing, processing, distribution and marketing to the point of sale.
Pritchard said that in terms of the challenges the SSC might face, there is firstly the question of whether the market even needs labeling and does it in fact confuse consumers; have they already made a decision about where they’re going to buy their seafood, and do they even look at the labels?
She also conceded that sustainability is low on consumers’ agendas when compared with price and quality.
“But because the businesses still wish to use labeling, we came together to ensure that labeling was consistent and was clear to the consumer.”
Therefore, with some time before the CMO’s proposals could become a reality, assuming they get the green light, those consumers that are looking for assurances can at least expect some temporary clarity when it comes to buying seafood.