Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Consumers & Seafood Certification

Seafood sustainability is a complex issue, especially for consumers. They feel overwhelmed by the myriad of issues and often are unwilling to take the time and effort to ask the necessary questions of a seafood purveyor or restaurant to determine whether a specific seafood is sustainable or not. They also can get confused by the conflicting information they receive from the media, such as whether aquaculture is sustainable or not. The media tends to showcase negative information about seafood, four times more than they showcase positive articles, and they often tend to exaggerate the perils.

What can a consumer do to more easily determine whether a specific seafood is sustainable or not?

Consumers need something simple, quick and trustworthy, and third party certifications can provide that solution. Such third party certifications can provide labels for seafood, vouching for the sustainability of the product, and consumers can then rely on those labels when purchasing seafood. That makes the buying decision much easier for consumers. They don't need to spend time asking lots of questions of the purveyor. All they have to do is look for a trusted label. It couldn't be any simpler for them.

There are a growing number of third party certifications for seafood sustainability, from the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) to the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC). Each has its own standards and covers its own types of seafood. There are also organizations such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch which provide seafood sustainability recommendations but don't issue actual certifications. All of these groups do the difficult work of sustainability assessment, making their results available to the general public, and often for free.  

Consumers need to understand a few basics about such certifications, and be willing to trust their decisions. It won't be the average consumer though who generally questions these certifications. Instead, it will be a passionate minority who will step up and inquire into those third party certifications. They will be the ones who question everything, including their motivations, knowledge level, biases and more. And that minority will then inform the general public, indicating which certifications are trustworthy or not.

As for the basics consumers need to know, they first need to understand that these certifications exist, and that they indicate the sustainability of the seafood. That requires such certification organizations to engage in media campaigns to make consumers aware of their existence. It requires fish markets, grocery stores, restaurants and others to make their customers aware of the certification labels on their seafood. It needs the media to spread the word, highlighting the positive work of these certification bodies. Unless consumers are educated, they won't be able to select seafood based on these certifications.

Second, consumers must learn that they cannot rely on a single certification for all their seafood decisions. Instead, they need to accept the validity of multiple certifications, as each specific certification has its limitations. For example, the MSC only certifies wild fisheries while the ASC only certifies aquaculture. Both certifications are equally valid and indicate sustainable seafood, just in different areas. If consumers seek only a single certification label, then they will be missing out on plenty of sustainable seafood.

If consumers start relying on these third party certification labels, then it will likely lead to more fisheries, both wild and farmed, to seek out certifications and that will lead to greater sustainability in the seafood industry. Educating consumers then about these labels is essential to the continued vitality of the seafood industry. As the importance of seafood grows, especially due to its potential to address the future food crisis, then the importance of sustainability becomes even more vital.

Another advantage to the proliferation if third party certification groups is that it seems to be leading to the creation of even stricter standards. The different groups want to differentiate themselves from the others and adhering to stricter standards is one way to do so. For example, the ASC, which was founded in 2010, created standards which include social issues, from worker safety to wages. This could be the future of sustainability, a consideration of not only the health of the oceans and fish, but also the health and safety of the workers involved in the industry. The more certification groups that embrace such social standards, makes the seafood industry better for all.

Spread the word about third party certifications, and let consumers understand their value. Let's have more consumers opt for sustainable seafood by making it easier for them to do so.

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