I was sitting at a quiet sushi bar in Wilmington, N.C. at lunchtime a few years ago when the owner asked me a question that would have a lasting impact.
“Want to try some special tuna? It’s called white tuna.” This was several years ago, and I hadn’t yet delved into the world of seafood awareness. But I knew just enough to be sure there was no such species swimming in the ocean. When I asked exactly what species it was, he said it was escolar. “It’s just as delicious as tuna, but much cheaper.”
My skepticism gave way to curiosity, which gave way to the first lasting impact of gastrointestinal distress. Only later did I find out escolar has proteins that can wreak havoc on your bowels.
Deceptive marketing is nothing new. But I had to ask why someone would take that approach knowing the downstream impact. I wondered how someone could get away with that. Eventually the ramifications would catch up to them, right?
Ecolabeling’s initial steps
This was one of the seminal episodes that started me on my path. A year later, I wrote a blog on eco-labeling, suggesting it was a new tool to provide necessary information to consumers, like where and how the seafood was caught. Then I dug a bit deeper to find that while the practice was great in principal, there were issues.
Some leading labels ran into problems, such as certifying fisheries that weren’t really sustainable (see North Atlantic longline swordfish and its huge bycatch), or allowing fisheries to hire the “third-party” certifiers (the fox minding the henhouse).
I have written and spoken about seafood fraud several times since. It is a key classroom topic exemplifying the need to be smarter about the seafood we eat. We talk about the implications when someone substitutes cheaper farmed salmon for wild-caught at a restaurant or lower-priced pollock for cod at a seafood store.
Trailing the pack
One outcome from the most recent seafood fraud report by ocean conservancy Oceana is that while the U.S. is a leader in stock management and preservation, its oversight of the supply chain compared to the European Union and other countries is wanting.
This is ironic. The current administration has made combating illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing a priority. Global IUU – which covers everything from human trafficking to mislabeling – costs the seafood industry up to $23 billion a year, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. There is a new rule under consideration in the U.S. that would require labeling on 13 key species before they are imported into the country.
But the current administration also embraces the Trans Pacific Partnership, a trade deal that would essentially encourage larger exports of U.S. caught seafood and larger imports of cheaper, less regulated seafood. Many in the U.S. industry fear such a deal would flood the market with lower quality seafood that may not even be correctly labeled. Worse, language in the deal would render the U.S. virtually helpless to prevent that product from entering the market.
The Oceana report cites the European Union’s labeling standard as a potential role model for the U.S. According to Kimberly Warner, one of the report’s authors, the EU has reduced its seafood mislabeling to about 9% of the seafood sold there (excluding restaurants). This compares with 19% for the global average and a whopping 28% for the U.S.
“When we found fraud at 18% at the retail level in stores in Boston (in 2014), people were cheering,” said Warner. “But people in the EU were aghast. The question becomes, what level of mislabeling are you comfortable with?”
I’ve said before that increased transparency and labeling standards will only work if US fishermen have a say in developing the process and they aren’t completely saddled with the cost. Otherwise, any such proposal will fail before it gets started.
The National Fisheries Institute says better enforcement of the laws on the books, not increased labeling standards is the answer. But Warner counters that domestic laws leave a lot of room for the type of mislabeling found in the report. “You need strong laws to enforce,” she said. Vague or voluntary labeling (as has been discussed with genetically engineered salmon) don’t help.
Consumers want more info
Oceana released a poll yesterday that says 83% of Americans support new traceability requirements, including proper labeling of the seafood and where and how it was caught (or farmed). Of the 1,000 respondents, 76% said they would pay more to know their seafood was caught legally and labeled correctly and honestly.
Consumer desire is there. But we need the political will to make it happen. The EU program relies mostly on government subsidies as well as some infrastructure costs born by seafood processors. The EU seafood processors and traders association said in 2011 that implementing the new rules governing labeling and other IUU measures did not have long-term impacts on their businesses. And several links in the supply chain now view labeling as a competitive advantage.
A handful of small operations have cropped up in the U.S. aimed at digitizing supply chain records to elevate transparency. That’s a start. But, we need to bring all stakeholders to the table and make transparency and adequate labeling happen on a national scale. Otherwise, it’s just a process of randomly putting out small fires.
Our best defense is information. A national, verifiable schema for tracing the seafood from boat to retailer, and developed with fishermen’s input, would be helpful and widely embraced by consumers.
Photo credits: NOAA