Q&A: Costs, benefits of eco-labeling

Editor’s note: SeafoodSource Editor Steven Hedlund is in San Diego this week reporting from the World Aquaculture Society’s Aquaculture 2010 conference.

Eco-labeling is one of many subjects on the agenda at this week’s World Aquaculture Society’s Aquaculture 2010 conference in San Diego. And Cooke Aquaculture is one of many aquaculture companies that has embraced eco-labeling to ensure that its fish are farmed in a sustainable, environmentally friendly manner.

The Blacks Harbour, New Brunswick, company has obtained Seafood Trust certification for its farmed salmon, ensuring that its operations have met an internationally recognized set of standards and are subject to frequent audits by Global Trust Certification Ltd., an ISO-accredited third-party certification body. Cooke Aquaculture raises about 50,000 metric tons of farmed salmon annually in Atlantic Canada and Maine, has operations in Chile and posts annual sales of about CAD 300 million.

Just prior to the Aquaculture 2010 conference, I talked to Cooke Aquaculture spokesperson Nell Halse about the challenges the company faces in familiarizing buyers and ultimately consumers with the Seafood Trust eco-label. This is part one of a two-part Q&A.

Hedlund: How much of a benefit has the Seafood Trust eco-label been?
There’s definitely a huge benefit. Until you experience it, you don’t really realize it. It’s a huge benefit in terms of corporate culture and the professionalism of the company, just internally. And, of course, externally helping to position the company and its products in the marketplace. It’s two-fold, really. It’s the company’s operations and how they’re perceived and, in the marketplace, it’s all tied together, especially with salmon. It’s given us something to talk to customers about, especially retailers who are really jumping on the bandwagon and want some way to show that they’re sourcing sustainable seafood, either caught or farmed.

Before the eco-label, it was a matter of just trying to convince people and talk to them about our practices. But we were always talking about ourselves. And what the Seafood Trust eco-label has done is given us better credibility. We’ve got the third-party system. We’re audited on a regular basis. It’s that culture of continuous improvement.

How thorough is Seafood Trust certification system?
You’re never at a point where you say, “OK, we’ve done that now. We’ve arrived.” Energy is a good example. How do you quantify the energy you use? In our case, because we’re fully integrated, it’s everything — it’s the hatcheries, it’s the farms, it’s the trucking, it’s the boats. We’re required to set goals for improvement. And then the next audit comes around and you show what you did to reach that goal. So there’s accountability throughout the system. The hatchery, the farms and the processing — those are the three stages that are audited. For the buyers that use the eco-label from us, there is a contract that has to be set up for chain of custody.

How much of an investment was obtaining Seafood Trust certification?
It has come at a huge cost. But if we only looked at the cost and the price we’re getting for the product, you would say, “Well this is not a worthwhile business venture.” We’re hoping that [prices] will improve as we increase the number of customers that buy into the program and are willing to pay for it. But right now the cost is significant.

But you have to ask yourself, “How are you perceived as a company in the marketplace? And how can you brand your products as far as environmental sustainability?” If you’re one of the first companies with the label, then you’re faced with the challenge of not only promoting the label on your product but also answering questions about the credibility of the third-party certifier.

Are you receiving a price premium for Seafood Trust-certified farmed salmon?
We would like [to see a price premium]. We’re working on that. It should be worth more. And that’s something else that’s taking some time to build. If you expect a huge price premium the day you go out with it, that’s just not realistic. It just takes time to build that.

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