Two steps forward, one step back

Published on
July 11, 2013

There’s a lot of consumer mistrust in the U.K. food industry, particularly in the wake of the European horsemeat scandal that came to prominence earlier in the year. While the country’s seafood category hasn’t been devoid of incident, it has thankfully fared better than most other proteins in recent years.

Probably the biggest blot in its copybook so far this year came as a result of campaigning chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s exposé on the use of so-called “trash fish” in cheap shrimp feeds in his “Fish Fight: Save Our Seas” TV series, which aired in February. He visited Thailand, the No. 1 shrimp-producing nation in the world, to try and establish what Brits’ beloved “king prawns” were being grown on and found that 25 percent of the Southeast Asian country’s marine catch ends up being turned into fishmeal and a lot of the trash fish-based feed was being supplied to shrimp farmers.

As the U.K. population eats around 50,000 metric tons (MT) of shrimp per year — which makes the product the country’s favorite shellfish by a significant margin — a certain level of consumer outrage was inevitable. To put pressure on the shrimp industry, Fearnley-Whittingstall called on viewers to Tweet the message “What are your prawns eating?” to the retailers’ Twitter accounts. The result was 40,000 messages sent.

To their credit, retailers have looked to address consumer fears and minimize potential impacts. As a result, four months on from HFW’s documentary, seven of the biggest food grocers in the United Kingdom have now pledged to play their part in cleaning up the shrimp farming industry.

Through a single statement released by Catherine Pazderka, head of sustainability at the British Retail Consortium (BRC), the multiples Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Morrisons, the Co-operative, Waitrose and Marks and Spencer (M&S), have said they will work with suppliers and NGOs to help address the challenges of sourcing fish feed derived from responsibly managed sources.

Pazderka said the BRC also recognizes the contributions made by others working on feedmeal and fisheries, which as well as NGOs include certification schemes and some of the leading U.K. seafood brands. To facilitate collaboration across these groups, earlier this year the BRC set up the Fishmeal Working Group as a platform for these stakeholders to share information and to identify opportunities for partnership.

She said retailers and suppliers are also helping to improve the management of these fisheries by engaging with a number of international projects and initiatives such as:

•    The REBYCII program, which provides measures for reducing by-catch in trawl fisheries producing fishmeal (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization);

•    Fishery improvement projects (run by The Sustainable Fisheries Partnership) in Southeast Asia looking at practical steps that can be taken to improve fishery management;

•    Certified feed and improver schemes addressing feed supply (International Fishmeal and Fish Oil Organisation); and

•    The Marine Program and Sustainable Fishmeal Project (The Prince's Charities' International Sustainability Unit).

“Although these are important steps toward better fisheries management, more comprehensive action is needed worldwide to effectively drive change,” said Pazderka. “We therefore encourage key players in the prawn and fishmeal supply chain—such as fishermen (including those catching fish sold into the fishmeal market), producers of farmed prawns/shrimp and fishmeal, processors, importers, and exporters—to communicate the need for responsibly sourced fishmeal in aquaculture feed and help drive change towards a more sustainable aquaculture industry.”

But for every problem that retailers look to resolve, it seems there’s another issue waiting in the wings to undermine the grocery sector. It came as little surprise then that in the same week that the retailers made their united commitment toward the shrimp sector, one of the country’s most widely-read newspapers put scampi – deep-fried nuggets of langoustine tails – in the spotlight, claiming that one in five scampi products contain pangasius.

The Daily Mail estimated Brits consume GBP 50 million (USD 75.6 million, EUR 57.9 million) worth of scampi every year but suggested they were “totally oblivious” to the “con” that some of the cheaper products contain as little as 7 percent langoustine and that they are all “bulked out” with pangasius, hake, pollock and other white fish.  Once again, U.K. fish retailers could find themselves in the tricky situation whereby consumers are presented with enough of a reason not to buy another of their favorite seafood products.

Contributing Editor reporting from London, UK

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