Ordering seafood off a menu in your favorite restaurant or from your local grocery store's seafood counter may not be as simple as you think. Right now, it is far too difficult for consumers to know basic facts about the seafood on their plates, such as what species of fish they are actually buying, where the fish is coming from, and how it was caught. The prevalence of illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing around the world means that you might be eating an endangered species caught in a protected area, and seafood fraud - the mislabeling of seafood products - means you probably wouldn't know if you were. Fortunately, a new report released this week by Oceana demonstrates that full-chain traceability for our seafood - a full accounting of its path from catch to consumption - is both achievable and beneficial.
Last month, the Obama administration's Presidential Task Force on Combating IUU Fishing and Seafood Fraud released a proposed rule that requires traceability to the first point of entry into U.S. commerce for certain species considered "at risk" of these activities. While it is an encouraging sign that the administration is addressing the problems of IUU and seafood fraud, the actions proposed do not go far enough. The proposed rule is currently open for public comment until April 5. Ultimately, the final rule should expand the documentation requirements to all seafood and extend traceability throughout the entire seafood supply chain.
Consumers deserve accurate information about the origins of their seafood, and Oceana's new report, Fish Stories: Success and Value in Seafood Traceability, demonstrates the feasibility of such a practice. Oceana's report spotlights the efforts of more than 15 companies that are using traceability now. As the report details, full-chain traceability isn't just possible; it's a profitable option for businesses that helps their customers make responsible choices.
It turns out that improved technology has made it easier for businesses to incorporate traceability into their plans - and to help provide the information that consumers want. Steve Vilnit, Director of Fisheries Marketing for seafood wholesaler J.J. McDonnell in Jessup, Maryland, told Oceana that telling the full story of a product's origins can help increase its value. To deliver this information to its customers, J.J. McDonnell supplements its own online database with an electronic traceability software platform and analytical tool called Trace Register, which provides QR codes detailing product information. Vilnit reported to Oceana that companies like Whole Foods and Wegmans "simply just won't buy product that isn't traceable, and this is really pushing the needle on traceability faster than it has been in years."
Another third party provider, called ThisFish, also helps fishermen provide more information to their customers. Duncan Cameron is a fourth-generation Canadian fisherman who started his own commercial fishing company called Sustainable Seas. "The transparency that traceability has brought to my business has been a great help when entering new markets or approaching new clients," he said. "When you are able to have a trusted third party provide all the fish information to a potential customer, it quickly creates trust and interest." Sustainable Seas uses ThisFish to connect its customers to the origins of the spot prawns, salmon, halibut, rockfish, and Dungeness crab it catches. Cameron has used the system to create an online profile for his company, generate unique codes to trace his products, and even allow consumers to provide feedback.
And in Washington, D.C., Black Restaurant Group, a collection of six restaurants founded by D.C. chefs Jeff and Barbara Black, has developed a QR code system that allows guests to scan a code and learn all of the information about their fish, including where, when, and how it was caught. This innovation, created with Congressional Seafood, was made in response to diner curiosity. "Our guests wanted to know they were getting the real deal," said MJ Gimbar, Black Restaurant Group's chief fishmonger. "So we took the information we had from our suppliers, and we took the fish, and we linked the information. To make everything transparent and make sure people were understanding that they were paying for what they were getting."
Seafood traceability isn't an unrealistic goal - it's something customers are increasingly coming to expect. The private sector has responded to this expectation by creating solutions and offering more information to consumers. Our government should recognize that all Americans deserve these same protections and issue a strong, comprehensive rule on seafood traceability. Full-chain traceability for all U.S. seafood is the only way to ensure that what we eat is safe, legally caught, and honestly labeled.