Charting the waters: Seafood traceability in the quest for sustainability
As the digital age progresses, customers are more connected, informed and discerning than ever before, seeking as much insight as possible into the products they purchase. Perhaps no entity has felt the weight of this consumer consciousness more heavily than the food and beverage (F&B) industry, where traceability requirements permeate the supply chain, and total transparency is necessary to remain profitable and sustainable. Signed into law on Jan. 4, 2011, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) serves as the leading legislation in this area, seeking to proactively ensure against food contamination by requiring business processes that provide a detailed record of food products as they travel from their source to front-line retailers.
While F&B enterprises of all types are subject to such regulations, the seafood industry has felt a unique initiative to track and monitor its offerings. Seafood is the number one food product imported into the United States, with 80 percent of the seafood consumed in the United States brought in from more than 60 countries—so tracking where an item is, where it has been, and where it is going at any given time can prove challenging. As such, issues including foreign sourcing, seafood fraud, species substitution and mislabeling have become industry pain points associated with broader concerns around sustainability, all underscoring the need for a systematic approach to data management, holding every intermediary in the supply chain responsible for maintaining quality control.
The stage is set for innovation and modernization as companies develop infrastructure and processes that not only facilitate food safety and security, but also provide the collaboration capabilities needed to strengthen financial, social and environmental sustainability goals, for a truly holistic support system.
What’s new? A look at recent seafood traceability initiatives
While the FDA has made progress in securing the safety of seafood through its Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points program, centered on preventive controls and routine inspections, total traceability and its role in the quest for sustainability remains an industry hot topic—and one leading many companies to seek supplemental measures of accountability. For example, some organizations are voluntarily engaging in independent eco-certification programs, while others are joining forces to promote ethical business practices, such as avoidance of genetically modified organisms. Some organizations are also taking on independent programs designed specifically around individual sustainability initiatives, tailored to ensure compliance with regulatory requirements, strengthen partnerships and streamline processes.
Mislabeling and misleading: Seafood fraud and consumers
As seafood companies seek ways to stay informed and compliant, the need has never been greater for industry progress in quality control and tracking. In a study from 2010 to 2012, leading ocean conservation and advocacy organization, Oceana, conducted one of the world’s largest seafood fraud investigations to date, collecting 1,200 seafood samples from 674 retail outlets in 21 states. After DNA testing, it was determined that one-third (33 percent) of all samples did not meet FDA labeling guidelines. Additionally, 74 percent of all sushi venues, 38 percent of restaurants and 18 percent of grocery stores were shown to have sold mislabeled seafood. Some sources estimate the percentage of mislabeled seafood to be even higher, as the individual aspects of each case make it difficult to pinpoint consistent, industry-wide metrics. But regardless of the statistic chosen, it’s clear that the problem of mislabeling is widespread, staggering and directly related to efforts around sustainability.
These types of marketing and labeling discrepancies in the seafood industry aren’t simply misleading—they’re expensive—for consumers and suppliers. According to the Oceana report, substituting a species such as tilapia for higher-priced grouper in a restaurant can cost customers an additional $10 per unit for an eight-ounce filet, and passing off farmed Atlantic salmon as wild salmon can result in an additional $5 per unit. But as news of the ubiquity of mislabeled seafood pervades consumers’ awareness, retailers of correctly sourced and labeled high-end seafood are also finding it more difficult to sell it to wary consumers at the rates required to cover their costs in obtaining it.
In response to these types of issues, researchers are moving forward with innovations designed to enable retailers to better verify their stock and help consumers stay informed. One such product is the fist-sized QuadPyre RT-NASB, a handheld sensor designed by University of South Florida researchers to test the DNA of 64 species of grouper for fraudulent labeling. The device, which is expected to sell at about $2,000 per unit, can deliver its DNA data in 45 minutes, versus the “up to a week” turnaround time on FDA tests.
Traceability and trust: Smarter systems mean stronger brand loyalty
So it seems clear that many of the issues and complexities surrounding traceability and misrepresentation in the seafood industry extend far beyond simple internal mix-ups, directly affecting the way consumers perceive their meal, grocery store purchase, and ultimately, the seafood industry as a whole. And a critical component of solutions capable of restoring consumer trust will be traceability capabilities that take full advantage of the dynamic speed of advancement and innovation in the technology space.
At the foundational level, the core of many effective traceability practices are systems designed specifically to boost electronic data interchange capabilities, enabling multiple entities within an organization to share and transfer critical data with and to critical stakeholders. Similarly, unified, industry-specific enterprise resource planning systems can prove invaluable resources, helping to organize inventory management and quality assurance documentation, with integrated traceability capabilities that can track a seafood product across its life cycle, even enabling custom definitions so organizations can trace specific product attributes as far back as necessary, then monitor, track, share and store this data to meet regulatory and consumer demands.
Moving forward: The future of traceability initiatives
Looking forward, the seafood industry will need to continue to embrace the evolving technologies and processes that will be required in order to achieve the levels of traceability that can begin to impact not only the issues around mislabeling and mistrust, but ultimately the broader challenges associated with sustainability. As with any considerable shift in business technologies, infrastructure, or process, such measures will require the total support and participation of all teams across an organization, guided by industry business leaders with the insight and vision to drive change.
In light of the weighty and complex challenges facing this industry, the time is right for a sea of change in how these challenges are considered and addressed. Regulations are poised to become even more ambitious, with future considerations extending past simple tracking to require evidence that seafood products weren’t harvested illegally or acquired using unethical labor practices. Protecting sustainability will require a more complete view of seafood products’ journeys from boat to plate. It’s time to get on board.
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“FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), U.S. Food and Drug Administration, accessed February 10, 2015"
Kochak, Jacqueline, “FSMA Era Open with Uncertainties for Seafood,” Food Safety Magazine, December 2012/January 2013
Hamburg, Margaret, “Food Safety Modernization Act: Putting the Focus on Prevention,” Foodsafety.gov, accessed February 10, 2015
“Sea Delight, LLC Announces Sustainable Seafood Policy,” Sea Delight, February 10, 2015
Warner, Kimberly, et al., “Oceana Study Reveals Seafood Fraud Nationwide,” Oceana, p. 1, February, 2013, accessed February 10, 2015
“Oceana Report Uncovers High Cost of Seafood Fraud,” Oceana, August 7, 2013
“Florida Scientists Develop Way to Detect Mislabeled Fish,” Reuters, February 5, 2015