Over the years, I have worked with a variety of clients, many of whom have an interest in learning more about what certification is, what it means, and what it can do for them. Having registered biologics with the USDA, drugs for aquaculture with the FDA and more recently, with the Aquaculture Certification Council and the Certifying Bodies that have been contracted to audit against their standards, NSF-Surefish and Global Trust, I believe that I have a solid understanding of what auditing entails. Ideally it affirms that a process or processes with a specific set of desired outcomes is performed in a manner that ensures that it is reproducible and that the final products meet some set of standards that have been deemed to be essential both from the standpoint of the manner in which they are manufactured and the quality of the final product.
It seems clear to me that standards that are deemed essential are not always the same when one considers aquaculture operations. Inarguably, when someone develops a vaccine, it has to be safe and effective and there will usually be widespread agreement about how to ensure this. However, when one is rearing fish or shrimp (or any shellfish or bivalve), while there is consensus about the final product, i.e. it should be a cost effective, healthy food source there is some disagreement about what the components of the process have to be to achieve this.
Over the last 4 years, I have audited more than 40 processing plants as well as ten or so fish and shrimp farms and shrimp and salmon hatcheries against the BAP standards. At the same time, I have been closely following the development of other certification schemes. It is clear that there does not appear to be universal agreement as to either what the standards should contain or what they should actually accomplish.
I think that most of us who work with these standards and who are knowledgeable about all of the issues would agree that there are a number of critical elements that any meaningful set of standards should contain:
1. Production of seafood by aquaculture in systems that ensures minimal environmental impact and high probabilities that the processes can continue as long as there is a market for the end products. This could be termed sustainability. Recall from my earlier blog though that there are some disparate ideas about how this is defined.
2. A balance between the needs of the company owners and the needs of the people who make the company what it is, the employees.
3. The use of science to further the production process. This should not be pseudo-science nor based on policies or desires of individuals or organizations that cannot support their concerns with valid scientific data.
4. Ensuring that the final product is harvested in a humane fashion and moved through the processing plant in a manner that maximizes the safety of the final product to the consumer.
5. Has the flexibility to adapt to the needs of a pliable process, regulatory constraints and the requirements of the consumer base.
As I audit and follow the development of standards, I am seeing what seems to be a distinct disparity as to a critical philosophical underpinning of the entire process. Some standards appear to be intended to be exclusionary. Only a relatively small number of farms will be able to meet the standards without significant and substantial (i.e. costly) changes in how the farms operate. Others lay out a framework that allows a much wider base of farm operators to potentially comply. All claim to provide a sustainable product.
I wonder which approach actually serves the consumers best interests and how one can have multiple sets of standards all of which purport to provide the same assurances, yet some are intended to benefit only a select few? Not all standards are the same. Do they meet the goals of the aforementioned points? Or are they written so as limit the sources of product deemed sustainable, creating a demand/supply dynamic that drives prices up for a select few providers without really ensuring that the product is produced under conditions that make it any more sustainable than someone else’s products?
Certification of aquaculture products is still in the relative early stages and while the market has yet to show that they value certified product over non-certified in terms of a willingness to pay more for a certified product, there are some signs that this will happen. At this time there are several different standards that products and processes are audited against with the need to certify being largely driven by the purveyors of the product to the consumer. In the not too distant future, I expect to see some consolidation occurring of the standards and hopefully demand beginning to be driven by the consumer with a concomitant willingness to pay more for certified product.
I am not sure however whose interest will be served if any one certification scheme seeks to make the groups that are certifiable such a small club that only a few can join and further seeks to create the perception that sustainability can only be defined in their terms. Certainly as consumers, we are all better off encouraging wide spread sustainability as protein produced by aquaculture continues to become an ever increasing percentage of our seafood consumption.
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