Eco-labels confuse UK consumers


Lindsey Partos, SeafoodSource contributing editor, reporting from Paris

Published on
May 24, 2010

Sustainable seafood products require concise, on-pack messages if they’re to tap into the United Kingdom’s GBP 2.7 billion fish market.

A new report from consumer watchdog Which? found that while demand for sustainable seafood is growing, labeling is leaving consumers confused.

“The variety of labeling schemes and different industry commitments makes it difficult for consumers to know what to buy,” said Sue Davies, chief policy officer at Which?.

Concerns about overfishing, the vulnerability of fish stocks and the environmental impact of aquaculture are driving demand for sustainable seafood in the UK. Which? — which interviewed a total of 2,324 consumers — underlined that although seven out of 10 shoppers “always or sometimes tried” to buy sustainable fish, the plethora of eco-labels combined with vague on-pack information is failing to guide their purchasing decisions.

The report found, for example, that the phrase “line-caught” was used on some products, which could mean traditional pole-and-line fishing but also longline fishing where lines can be up to 100 miles long.

Further, consumer education regarding eco-labeling is required to raise awareness. The watchdog identified seven eco-labels, but one-third of those surveyed failed to recognize any of labels and 40 percent said the labels don’t provide enough information.

Which? rated UK retailers Waitrose and Marks & Spencer as “the best of the bunch” for sustainable seafood shoppers and applauded them for providing clear labeling.

In highlighting how retailers communicate their sustainable policies, Which? gave a thumbs-up to the Co-operative, Waitrose and Marks & Spencer. But the watchdog found it harder to identify the details of the sustainability policies at Tesco, Morrisons and Asda.

Phil MacMullen, head of environment at industry organization Seafish, said putting eco-labels on all seafood may be difficult. “Some fisheries don’t lend themselves to the process, and others may not want to pay the often high costs of certification,” he explained.

Which? encouraged confused consumers to look for the Marine Stewardship Council eco-label, consult the Marine Conservation Society’s fish-to-avoid checklist and buy seafood from supermarkets with the most comprehensive sourcing policies.

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