Sustainability gaining ground in Chinese market

Published on
November 6, 2019

Among the sea of Chinese companies exhibiting a huge variety of species and equipment at the China Seafood Expo in Qingdao, China, one thing was in greater abundance in 2019 than ever before: Displays showcasing products certified to a sustainability scheme.

Certifications – like that of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) or the Global Aquaculture Alliance’s Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP) certification – have been catching on in the world’s most populous country, with multiple China-based companies now holding a certification of some kind. The number of products, too, showcasing certifications has increased rapidly.

“We’ve had a rapid growth in interest. Just 6 years ago, there were just 15 labeled products, now there are 550,” Rupert Howes, chief executive with MSC, told Seafoodsource.

A key and important factor in that new interest is its direction. In the past, certification interests were driven by a desire to enter into markets abroad that come with increased chain-of-custody or sustainability requirements. However, Howes said, there’s more and more interest in sustainability certifications domestically.

“There’s a growing attention in terms of conservation in China, because we also have a lot of discussions on ocean pollution,” Yan An, China country director for the MSC, told SeafoodSource. “The consumer do have the urgency of, ‘we need to have sustainable fisheries programs in China.’”

Consumers in China, she said, recognize that the oceans are a resource that needs protecting, especially in light of the decline of local species.

That drive has pushed some companies to move toward certification in a big way. Liancheng Overseas Fishery (Shenzhen) Co., for example, just recently gained its fifth MSC certification, and is MSC certified for its bigeye and yellowfin tuna fisheries. Joe Zou, the International Marketing Manager for the company, told SeafoodSource that that is in part due to market-driven desire for more MSC labeled products.

Sustainability, however, isn’t just about protecting the ocean in China. According to Steve Heart, the vice president of Asia market development for the Global Aquaculture Alliance, certifications are also a mark of quality and safety.

“Working with those companies, they import a lot of product, and for them certification and sustainability is a message that they can convey to their customers, and it’s more about ‘this is safe, and nutritious, and an internationally recognized brand,’” Hart told SeafoodSource.

While food safety is not the aim of GAA’s BAP certification, the requirements of the certification are quite literally the ‘best practice’ for the industry, and having the certification is a symbol to customers that the product is safe.

“They may not know what BAP is, or what MSC is, for them it’s about how it is internationally recognized, and that implies safety, and traceability,” Hart said. “There’s been food scandals in China, and certification provides assurance.”

That may be true for consumers, but according to Howes, there are many companies that have seen the importance of sustainability and have placed it at the “heart of their business.” Liancheng, he mentioned, has seen the engagement sustainability has had with consumers, and has also recognized the need to have sustainable fisheries in order to continue having a resource to fish at all.

The aquaculture side, Hart said, still has a lot of room for improvement in China. A large percentage of the country’s fish comes from domestic aquaculture sources, which are often at such a small scale certification with BAP would be difficult. In addition, the market in China is mainly live seafood, and traceability with live seafood is a puzzle that BAP is still working on.

“Currently there are no standards for transporting live fish, that’s outside the venue of any of the certifications,” Hart said.

Despite those challenges, Hart forsees that BAP will continue to have an increasing presence in China.

“I do believe there is opportunity to work with the domestic producers, and start to get them to the improving point so they can hit the international quality standard,” he said.

The MSC, too, is seeing positive signs and anticipates greater participation in China in the coming years.

“Five years ago, I was here sitting in the room, waiting for buyers to come over and they would ask me ‘what species do you have,’” Howes said, referring to the relatively low knowledge of MSC at the time. “This year we had around 10 meetings with buyers that all came to us.”

Photo by Chris Chase/SeafoodSource

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