Barcode-driven product tracking leads the way in enabling seafood traceability

Published on
October 20, 2017

Beep. Beep. That ubiquitous sound, heard six billion times a day at the checkout counters in grocery stores and shops around the world, could be integral to the next phase of seafood traceability.

Barcodes – and their cousin, the QR code – may seem like simple things, but the data they hold could be the difference between knowing the origin of a fish or not.

For fishermen, seafood processors and others in the industry, better traceability and more efficient product tracking can reduce logistics costs while building customer loyalty. For environmentalists and regulators, traceability offers another tool to fight illegal and unsustainable fishing.

Compared to other food industries, seafood is behind in its use of GS1 Standards, the most widely used product-tracking system in the world, according to Angela Fernandez, the vice president of retail grocery and food service for GS1 U.S.

Though some seafood companies are making major progress, only about 25 firms have traceability programs underway, Fernandez said. Other food industries are further along. The meat industry, for instance, has been using GS1 Standards for almost two decades. More than 65 percent of the produce industry has implemented programs.

“The top of the supply chain – fishermen and processors – have not yet embraced the use of produce identification and barcodes, mainly due to the physical challenges of barcoding a fish or seafood product,” Fernandez told SeafoodSource.

GS1 Standards help retailers with inventory management while potentially offering data to consumers, who can scan certain kinds of QR and other codes for product information.

By applying the standards, companies can link their internal product tracking systems with an external system that trading partners are also connected to. The standards involve storing identification numbers for products and locations inside barcodes and QR codes, then making that identification data available to companies up and down the supply chain through web-based data exchanges.

But the standards have to be adopted by a large portion of the industry to truly be effective.

“By committing to one way of exchanging product data, one way of identifying products, seafood suppliers can realize cost savings in reduced hours of labor and a reduction of redundant processes,” Fernandez said.

In the long term, Fernandez said, the standards and the traceability they offer increase brand loyalty and consumer confidence. In the short term, companies will see an immediate increase in operational efficiency, speeding up the time to market and eliminating data discrepancies.

Consumers are demanding more and more information about the products they purchase, and QR codes and other forms of scannable, interactive packaging – such as nearly invisible whole-package barcodes – allow them to access that information in real time.

“The seafood industry is certainly no stranger to the needs of the conscientious consumer – authenticity, sustainability and fair trade issues are highly scrutinized and consumers want peace of mind,” Fernandez said. “Leading food companies are developing innovative interactive product information to the consumer.” 

Environmental advocates agree that more needs to be done to increase seafood traceability.

Some seafood sectors are doing better than others, according to Huw Thomas, a senior officer on the Pew Charitable Trust’s Ending Illegal Fishing Project. For example, the supply chain between a salmon farmer who provides gutted fish to a retailer is likelier to be fully tracked and visible than, say, a shrimp buyer sourcing from multiple ponds and consolidating them into a single processing plant. 

“The shorter the supply chain, the greater the traceability,” Thomas told SeafoodSource. Additionally, traceability rises when a buyer or retailer mandates it, he said.

Thomas suggested that fish should have a “passport” that builds as the fish moves through the supply chain. For wild-caught fish, data collection would start after the fish is harvested, with an accurate logbook, landing document, and purchase or transfer-to-processing document. Some current traceability measures that create a catch certificate only after the fish has been processed are insufficient and allow for fraudulent documents, he said.

“Unless seafood buyers track and trace their seafood, the environmental sustainability and labor risks within their supply chains cannot be addressed,” Thomas said.

A new partnership between several foundations, the United States Agency for International Development and the sustainable seafood consultancy group FishWise may also help bolster traceability.

Announced last week, the partnership will work to improve transparency in seafood supply chains, and thus promote sustainable fisheries management.

“Poor transparency and supply chain traceability are major impediments to achieving our goals around ending illegal fishing,” Meg Caldwell, deputy director for oceans at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, said in a statement.

The learning network will allow seafood companies, conservation groups and others to discuss needs, challenges, and opportunities to improve traceability, especially when it comes to collecting, sharing, verifying, and using data to improve sustainability in fisheries.

“If we can more effectively document and trace our seafood and use that information to empower fisheries managers, we will be one big step closer to long-term sustainability of the industry,” Tobias Aguirre, the CEO at FishWise, said in a statement.

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