By Jason Holland, SeafoodSource contributing editor reporting from London
27 July, 2012
Seafood labeling is once again a hot topic in the European retail arena, thanks in no small part to a new survey published by consumer watchdog Which? that claims labels on fish sold in some supermarkets don’t give shoppers the right information about how and where their fish is caught.
Which? is calling for clearer labeling, and gave the example that many brands and supermarkets label their tinned tuna “dolphin friendly,” but said this is “usually irrelevant” because most tinned tuna is skipjack tuna, which don’t swim with dolphins.
Current European regulations demand that whole and filleted fish must be labeled with the fish’s commercial name, whether it’s farmed or wild and the geographical area in which it was caught. But Which? bemoans the fact that information on the specific habitat and the method of catch aren’t required, saying that it’s these details that tell you if a seafood product is sustainable or not.
“Labeling has improved since we last looked at fish sustainability two years ago. But some products still don’t carry enough information to allow consumers to make sustainable choices,” said Which?
Which? conducted an online survey of U.K. adults earlier this year, and three-quarters of the 1,995 participants said they wanted to know if the fish they were buying was sustainable. It said it would therefore like retailers and brands to use consistent and reliable certification schemes, in particular the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) to “help shoppers recognize sustainable products at a glance.”
But while the MSC eco-label is growing evermore familiar — a new independent survey commissioned by the NGO found that 30 percent of consumers who buy fish at least once every two months are aware of the mark (up from 23 percent in 2010) — and awareness of the ASC label should grow as products enter the market, it’s a fact that many products from responsibly managed fisheries will never bear either.
It should also be acknowledged that some retailers, including Asda, have not pursued chain-of-custody certification, despite purchasing MSC-certified fish.
As a result of high-profile campaigns like Fish Fight, fear of not buying sustainably is a growing concern for European consumers. It’s also been on the radar of policymakers for some time. And in July 2010, the European Commission adopted a proposal for the reform of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) that goes further than the current legislation in terms of giving information to consumers on fish and aquaculture products.
It extends the obligation to label the commercial name, production method and provenance to all products whatever their presentation (canned and processed products weren’t previously included) and also proposes to include date of catch, mention of fresh or defrosted for non-processed products.
Furthermore, it supports the provision of more understandable and precise information on the provenance of the products. Until now this information has been limited to very large areas (e.g. FAO zone number or North East Atlantic). The reform proposal offers the opportunity to label smaller and better known areas, for example North Sea, English Channel and Bay of Biscay.
Needless to say, the proposal — should it be introduced next year — will make it easier for sustainability-savvy consumers to buy from well managed stocks. But there’s also a danger that in trying to inform consumers we end up overloading Joe Public with information.
And the communications won’t stop there. Beyond the rules outlined by the new CFP, the new Food Information Regulation (FIR), designed to make food labeling easier to understand for consumers, has been published by the European Union.
This regulation combines rules on general food and nutrition labeling into a single EU regulation that requires country of origin, nutritional and allergen information. Furthermore, meat and fish products that look like a cut, joint or slice and contain more than 5 percent added water will be required to show this in the name of the food. Also, a minimum font size has been set for all mandatory information.
Most of the requirements will be mandatory from 2014, with the nutritional labeling becoming mandatory from 2016.
According to research conducted by the European Food Information Council (EUFIC), consumers spend on average 30 seconds deciding over each product that they buy. EUFIC also found consumers deliberate the longest over-ready meals, while two-thirds of shoppers look at the front-of-pack in detail before making a purchasing decision.
Because of the diverse and complicated nature of the seafood sector, retail packaging is at risk of becoming extremely text-heavy. At a time when households have been moving away from seafood and choosing less-expensive proteins, the category doesn’t need a further purchasing hindrance.
27 July, 2012