Why traceability is so important
Traceability is a catch phrase in the global seafood industry, taken in general to mean the ability to fully trace a product from the point of sale back to its point of origin, with information available about all transactions and movements in between.
But why is this so important? The answer is that traceability is vital for food safety, to prove legality and to verify sustainability. With seafood the most globally traded food commodity, all three aspects are vital, yet there are no international standards related to documentation and record keeping nor to tracking protocols.
Mariah Boyle, project director at sustainable seafood consultancy FishWise, has just completed a white paper on seafood traceability. “Without a Trace: A Summary of Traceability Efforts in the Seafood Industry” points out that issues related to illegal fishing and mislabelling have become more prominent in recent years, as NGOs and governments make efforts to combat them. Media interest has also brought concerns to fore.
“For seafood traders, the lack of product origin information and supply chain transparency can pose significant risks and have far reaching and unforeseen effects,” explained Boyle. “In the past, the focus has been primarily on food-safety concerns, but media coverage has highlighted wider environmental, social and legal issues associated with seafood. This has raised significant shareholder concerns, which can impact brand value and question the corporate social responsibility initiatives of companies.”
Mariah finds that opportunities for fraud are increasing as new and poorly managed fisheries develop, resulting in traders being unable to track the origin of products, or to verify they are the actual species being sold. Of particular concern to her are the human rights issues frequently associated with illegal fishing activities.
“I want my research to spark debate as to how the seafood industry can work together to eliminate illegal fishing and unacceptable social conditions from supply chains. If government, conservation organizations, funders and industry work together, significant progress on seafood traceability can be made, and, in turn, the environmental and social aspects of the seafood industry improved,” Boyle told SeafoodSource.
The paper gives an overview of traceability and the importance of traceability systems, looks at the challenges and explores how more than 40 international and regional government programs, certification systems, conservation organizations, companies and industry groups are tackling traceability issues.
Challenges to making seafood fully traceable through use of a standardized electronic system throughout the supply chain include language and technological barriers and the cost implication for smaller companies. “The industry has grown up on long-term relationships and trust, and with supply chain information closely guarded,” said Boyle. “Those still operating such systems fear that transparency will lead to breaches of commercial confidentiality, allowing the information to be used to others’ advantage.”
However, progress is being made, with DNA testing and traceability software being developed and companies instituting traceability policies with the help of NGOs, government bodies and technology companies.
“The process has started, but much more work needs to be done,” she said. “Companies and organisations can also encourage countries to adopt the UN Port State Measures Agreement, work with developing nations to help them prevent IUU fishing in their waters, and ensure that government and industry work together on effective and efficient traceability systems.”
Boyle wants the white paper to serve as a guide for seafood businesses seeking to improve the traceability of their own supply chain and to build the knowledge base of NGOs and other groups working on seafood traceability.
She recommends a series of simple steps to help companies improve the traceability of their supply chain, including communicating their expectations to suppliers, improving internal tracking systems, conducting risk assessments, auditing high risk items and ensuring database systems are configured to receive and store pertinent details.
A second version of the document is due to be released in late August.