Richman Law rep: Seafood industry must back up sustainability claims or face lawsuits

Richman Law and Policy Animal Welfare Legal Fellow Brooke Dekolf.

A series of lawsuits related to seafood sustainability claims and eco-labels have scared the seafood industry to be more careful about the language they use to describe their products. 

One of the first suits was filed by catering firm Neversink General Store in November 2020, alleging Mowi's messages using the terms “sustainable” and “eco-sustainable” in marketing its Ducktrap smoked salmon brand were false. Mowi agreed to settle the case for USD 1.3 million (EUR 1.1 million) in March 2021.

Most recently, two lawsuits against ALDI were dismissed after the retailer agreed to change its marketing tactics for its farmed salmon products. Additionally, in September 2022, Gloucester, Massachusetts, U.S.A.-based Gorton’s Seafood settled a lawsuit out of court that alleged its tilapia products were falsely advertised as being sustainably sourced. A federal judge also recently denied Red Lobster’s motion to dismiss a class-action fraud lawsuit alleging it sold Maine lobster and farmed shrimp that is not as sustainable as the company claimed.

Irvington, New York, U.S.A.-based law firm Richman Law and Policy has represented the plaintiffs in several of these cases. SeafoodSource recently talked with Richman Law Animal Welfare Legal Fellow Brooke Dekolf to determine whether seafood suppliers are changing their practices and marketing claims as a result of these lawsuits. Despite the bevy of lawsuits, many seafood companies remain unable to legitimately substantiate their sustainability claims, according to Dekolf. 

SeafoodSource: Why do you believe courts have ruled in plaintiffs’ favor – or at least allowed litigation to proceed – in seafood sustainability cases?

Dekolf: Courts are correctly recognizing that modern consumers want to leverage their preferential purchasing power to align their purchasing decisions with ethical concerns such as minimizing their contribution to the climate crisis and minimizing harm to farmed animals, including farmed aquatic animals. These consumers, therefore, seek animal-based products that are marketed as sustainable and promise to be made from farmed animals treated as humanely as possible.

However, while many consumers are increasingly aware of the environmental and welfare harms perpetuated by land-based industrial animal agriculture, the industrialization of aquatic animal farming is a relatively recent phenomena. Consumers want to purchase products made from aquatic animals in line with their welfare and sustainability concerns, but they often lack the industry-specific knowledge to trace backwards a supply chain and evaluate whether a specific company’s supply chain does in fact live up to its environmental and animal welfare marketing.

Courts are recognizing that the combination of these factors put consumers in a difficult position, as they want products sourced in accordance with high environmental and animal welfare standards but can’t determine for themselves whether marketing on these issues is actually accurate.

SeafoodSource: Why do you believe we are hearing more about false or misleading sustainability claims in the seafood sector? What are the problems unique to the seafood industry?

Dekolf: The problem here is that, just as courts are increasingly recognizing the value consumers place on products sourced in a manner that minimizes environmental harm and farmed animal exploitation, the seafood industry has also caught on to this shift in consumer purchasing behavior. The seafood industry knows that consumers will seek out, buy more of, or pay more for products made from aquatic animals when those products are marketed as sustainable and humane.

The seafood industry also knows that ... 

Photo courtesy of Richman Law and Policy

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