AS MORE and more of the world's seafood is certified sustainable, a new scheme for UK food companies promises to offer consistent labelling.
It was back in 2011 that ClientEarth found out that something fishy was going on with seafood labels. the environmental law firm had tested 100 different products across nine supermarkets and found that 32 of them had misleading or unverified claims on the packaging. “Sustainably sourced” and “Responsibly farmed” were among those used frequently together with the particularly perplexing “Protects the marine environment” and “dolphin-friendly” tuna caught in areas where there was no threat to dolphins but rather turtles and sharks.
Playing good-cop bad-cop, the firm’s CEO, James Thornton, said at the time that he would “like all supermarkets that have misleading claims on the products to remove them ... or to prove them with evidence. If they don’t, complaints can and will be made to the Office of Fair Trading arguing breaches of consumer protection laws.”
Often that would be that. The EU laws are notoriously ambiguous and challenging the big food companies can be extremely expensive. Also, the likes of Hugh Fearnley- Whittingstall can only do so much. So instead Thornton and his team began a process of industry engagement in an ambitious bid to find a solution. And, almost four years on, they have got one.
In September, two new voluntary codes of conduct were published by the Sustainable Seafood Coalition, a group that evolved from ClientEarth’s original investigation. The labelling code is designed to give consumers certainty about what environmental claims on fish and seafood mean, while the sourcing will ensure coalition members source their fish and seafood products responsibly.
The big change, says the coalition’s co-ordinator, Katie Miller, is the move to eliminate all the ambiguous claims and leave just two: sustainable and responsible. These then have to be endorsed by an independent third party. The likes of Morrisons, Tesco, Young’s Seafood and M&J Seafood have all signed up to both codes.
For foodservice businesses, the sourcing code is likely to be the more relevant (members can’t actually sign up to the labelling code without having also committed to the sourcing one). It isn’t a certification standard, however, or another label. In fact, there will be no label. “This is about improving stocks,” says Miller.
Of course, to audit sourcing procedures does require staff time and it’s no surprise that the bigger businesses are the initial signatories. Still, that’s no mean feat. Thornton explains: “When we launched the Sustainable Seafood Coalition three years ago, some thought getting so many businesses to agree to codes like this was impossible. The members deserve a lot of credit for showing it can be done.”
Indeed, by this time next year there should be far fewer dodgy claims on seafood packs and, perhaps, a few more fish in the sea.
Details of the new codes can be found here: http://tinyurl.com/o7t26yl