For Samuel Stone, fisheries officer at the Marine Conservation Society (MCS), the introduction of the new EU food labelling laws last December was a mixed bag – while he welcomed the legislation which required retailers and wholesalers to state the species name, method of production (whether a fish is farmed or wild-caught) and capture method on each product, there was crucial element missing.
Manufacturers of processed fish were exempt from the laws, meaning that canned, breaded and composite fish or seafood products – containing both plant and fish material such as a prawn sandwich – did not have to list any information.
“We still see products with vague labelling stating things like ‘Caught in the East and West Atlantic’ (an area of over approximately 41 million square miles) or ‘Mixed white fish’ or simply ‘Tuna’,” said Stone.
This turns the process of making an informed decision into a minefield for consumers - and manufacturers risk becoming victims of a consumer boycott because of it.
The MCS regularly receives complaints from its members about the lack of transparency meaning they are unable to make informed decisions – and so they simply put the product back on the shelf.
“The 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.”
Negative perceptions are to blame
But Tom Pickerell, technical director at Seafish, the UK’s non-departmental public body which represents the seafood industry, did not agree: “This [a consumer boycott] only becomes a risk if consumers associate certain methods of capture with negative perceptions. Sadly some campaigning groups focus on the gear type rather than considering (or being aware of) the bigger picture and the complex nature of fisheries.”
He cited the example of one group which campaigned against all forms of trawling – despite the fact that several trawling fisheries are MCS-certified, such as the South African Hake fishery.
But Stone said that by not telling consumers the fish species used then they were still preventing consumers from making informed decisions - even if those consumers were aware of the MCS-authorised catch methods.
“Providing the capture method is important, but is not a substitute for the species name and detailed capture area. Unless certified, all 3 of these things are needed to establish how sustainable wild fisheries are.”
Promoting ethical products together
In the meantime Stone invited any food manufacturers who voluntarily listed this additional information on their packs to contact the MCS to explore the possibility of co-branding initiatives, sending out press releases to MCS members of ethically sourced products that informed them of products promoted examples of best practice companies primarily on their social media channels and through emails to members.
“We’re happy to promote this and make a shout about [ethical] companies,” he said.
The MCS previously conducted a survey of retailers to see which came out top for traceability and labelling – Marks and Spencer’s and Sainsbury’s – and it was something that they were considering doing for brands.
According to Eszter Hidas of the WWF’s Smart Fishing Initiative, approximately 15% of world catches come from illegally caught fish. The EU is one of the leading global seafood markets consuming 25% of the world’s seafood, of which 70% is imported.