If seafood labelling isn’t clear, making responsible choices becomes a minefield for consumers

As businesses that sell seafood will know, new fish labelling laws came into force on 13 December 2014. The changes are part of EU legislation supporting the newly reformed EU Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). Among other things, the changes include the requirement to include the species name, the category of fishing gear used and, for seafood caught in the North East Atlantic, the detailed capture area e.g. Sub Area VIIe West English Channel.

As the sustainability of seafood depends on where and how it was caught or produced, this kind of information is absolutely key. For instance, common sole is doing very well in the North Sea and should be promoted, but the species is in dire-straits in the Irish Sea and is best avoided from there. Up until now, it was virtually impossible to look at a packet of seafood and be able to tell the difference.

With the new changes, shoppers, in many cases for the first time, will be able to make truly informed decisions when buying seafood, particularly when using labelling information alongside MCS web based Fishonline seafood advice and pocket Good Fish Guide. For the same reason, this is why from a Marine Conservation Society (MCS) perspective; it is disappointing that most processed products such as canned, crumbed, and composite products (containing both fish and plant material e.g. a prawn sandwich), are exempt from these new requirements.

MCS urges businesses to voluntarily start extending these key additions to processed products as well and to make better use of the various tools and resources available to help customers learn about the origins of their seafood such as ecolabels, QR codes or web links, and legitimate claims of responsibility or sustainability.

Since MCS began assessing supermarket performance relating to sustainable seafood in 2005, labelling and consumer information has been a sticking point for most seafood retailers and brands, and whilst we have seen improvements by some leading businesses, it has been something that all can improve upon.

MCS believes that any buyer at any stage of the supply chain - whether for personal consumption or commercial use - should be able to easily identify key information that relates to the origin of the seafood (processed or not); and / or should be able to easily identify whether the product is sustainable or has been responsibly sourced through use of a reputable eco-label or legitimate and verifiable claim, such as outlined through the Sustainable Seafood Coalition (SSC) voluntary labelling code2.

In the absence of information, it is easy for consumers and NGOs to assume that the product is not from a sustainable source. If shoppers hear that one species is in trouble in a specific fishery, they may try and steer clear of the species altogether. However, this may very well be unnecessary and actually reduce demand for seafood from very well managed fisheries. If the labelling isn’t clear, making responsible choices becomes a minefield.

We still see products with vague labelling stating things like ‘Caught in the East and West Atlantic’ (an area of over approximately 41million square miles) or ‘Mixed white fish’ or simply ‘Tuna’. Whilst perhaps factually correct and legal, none of these descriptions are particularly useful to consumers who are trying to make sustainable choices. It is also disappointing to see that some businesses are listing every potential combination of gear type and catch area likely to be encountered for a single species rather than listing the specific information e.g. listing both purse seine and hand line capture methods for mackerel – two very different capture methods that ought to be easy to differentiate. Again, whilst perhaps legal and honest, such labelling is of little use to consumers wanting to choose between such capture methods.

It’s not straight forward, but improvements need to be made

The MCS recognises that seafood labelling and consumer information is not a straight forward ask of retailers and brands as there is much more to seafood labelling and consumer information than simply putting information on packs and blackboards – after all, the information needs to be verifiable and legitimate. We also understand that providing more specific information often requires fundamental changes to the processing and supply of seafood, and the development and integration of new technology into existing traceability systems, which can take considerable time and resources.

However, MCS believes the industry needs to better communicate its ambitions and plans to improve upon the existing void of meaningful seafood labelling on many products, and to undertake discreet projects trialling new processes and technology. MCS is eager to help promote businesses undertaking such projects and to lend support wherever possible. Such projects will help pave the way to new industry best practice and help build consumer and NGO confidence in the seafood supply chain and ultimately drive demand for seafood from the most responsible fisheries and farms.

Samuel Stone is fisheries officer for The Marine Conservation Society

A Pocket Good Fish Guide featuring a summary of the Fish to Eat and Fish to Avoid lists is available from www.mcsuk.org where there are also links to download the Good Fish Guide smart phone App

EU Legislation on labelling – New EU labelling legislation (EC 1379/2013) dictates that for unprocessed (and some processed) retailers must display the: species name of the seafood being sold; its method of production (farmed or wild-caught); capture method (eg trawl caught) for wild caught; and the detailed capture area for seafood caught in the North East Atlantic (eg Western Channel) and FAO area of capture or production for all others (FAO fisheries area, e.g. North East Atlantic, for wild caught fish and country of final development for farmed fish).

1 - The Common Organisation of the Markets of fishery and aquaculture products (CMO). Regulation (EU) No 1379/2013

2 - Sustainable Seafood Coalition codes


animal welfare  seafood supply chains 

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