New Consumer Guide Examines What Certifications Really Tell You About the Fish You're Eating


Brussels – A new report and seafood-buying guide released today by Food & Water Europe shows that consumers can’t always rely on labels if they want to buy sustainably. In fact, determining which seafood products are best for you and our planet can be a difficult job. A number of private fish certification programs boast reliable standards and labels to evaluate and market seafood as “environmentally friendly” or “sustainably produced”, but what they don’t tell you is at least as important as what they do, and that’s where things get tricky for conscientious shoppers.

The new report De-Coding Seafood Eco-Labels: Why We Need Public Standards compares and contrasts existing private certifications including those of The Marine Stewardship Council, Global Aquaculture Alliance, and Friends of the Sea. It finds that a lack of meaningful official labelling standards has allowed private eco-labels to capture large portions of the market, but that these are not adequate indicators of sustainable seafood choices for consumers, restaurants or retailers, and in fact can contradict one another.

“People often think that if they buy seafood with an eco-label, it’s automatically a good choice,” said Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director of Food & Water Europe. “Unfortunately, these certifications don’t assure that the product consumers are getting is actually eco-friendly, or that companies are improving their behaviour.”

An analysis of many eco-labels found inadequacies with regard to environmental standards, social responsibility and community relations, labour regulations, international law, and transparency. Some of the findings include:

Flawed fisheries are often certified. Some programs use their eco-label as incentive for a fishery or farm to make improvements. However, consumers have no way of knowing if the fish they are eating comes from a fishery that has merely pledged improvements or one that meets all the criteria for an eco-label. Some critics have claimed that in many cases, few improvements are made after certification.

Conflicts result from labels used for marketing purposes. Eco-labels are often predominantly used as a marketing tool. Certifiers are reliant upon increasing the number of fisheries certified in order to continue building their name and market share—an inherent conflict that can result in objectionable certifications.

Carbon footprints are often not considered. Most eco-labels fail to include “food miles” in their standards. New Zealand hoki, therefore, can be eco-labelled for sale in San Francisco.

They don’t meet FAO guidelines. The Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) has standards for eco-labelling and certification programs, but an analysis shows them lacking in regard to FAO’s standards on transparency, damage mitigation from pollution, and contribution to rural development and food security.

“Consumers aren’t told that these labels often have a ‘pay to play’ aspect,” said Eve Mitchell of Food & Water Europe. “A well-managed fishery that can’t finance certification may not have an eco-label and still be the best choice, while one that is less sustainable could be certified because someone paid for it. As a result of this, labels can actually encourage consumers to buy less sustainable products, and it can be challenging for consumers to decipher whether labels are very meaningful. To us this is getting very close to actually misleading consumers, which must be dealt with officially.”

The report concludes that the European Commission should 1) expand the information required on seafood labels to close current loopholes, and 2) fulfil their intention to ensure labels adhere to FAO guidelines by developing specific and clear interpretations of those guidelines, requiring all certifiers to adhere to them and enforcing those regulations.

In the meantime, consumers can use the questions in the guide to help them assess the quality and sustainability of seafood they buy.

“While some high-profile areas get attention, reforming the Common Fisheries Policy to end discards or put new labels on tinned tuna is simply not enough to protect our oceans, which are under increasing pressure from the industrial fishing and unchecked corporate harvesting that erroneously leads to products sold as ‘sustainable,’” said Mitchell. “Consumers want to do the right thing, and we think many will be hopping mad to learn the eco-labels they trusted have only told part of the story. We don’t believe you have to ‘work with’ multinational companies because they are there already. It only lets them hide behind pretty labels, and if what they are doing is wrong, we’ll say so.”

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