De-Coding Seafood Eco-Labels: Why We Need Public Standards | Food & Water Watch
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Luana Conley
December 7th, 2010

De-Coding Seafood Eco-Labels: Why We Need Public Standards

Choosing the best fish to eat can be complicated. People browsing seafood counters or restaurant menus may wonder whether certain fish are both safe and sustainable. In many cases, the more a person knows, the more questions arise: Is this wild or farmed? Local or imported? Produced in an environmentally responsible way? High in mercury? Tainted with antibiotics and chemicals?

In light of these questions, there is a demand for straightforward guidance on seafood. To address the sustainability questions surrounding fish, a number of certification programs have developed sets of standards and labels to evaluate and then market “environmentally friendly” or “sustainably produced” fish.

While the intent to raise awareness about sustainability among seafood suppliers and fish farms is admirable, it is questionable whether these labels are actually increasing sustainability in the marketplace.

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Meanwhile, many seafood restaurants and retailers have begun sourcing their seafood predominantly or exclusively from fisheries or companies that have been “certified” by eco-labels in an effort to promote their environmental awareness about seafood sustainability to consumers. California’s state government has committed to implement a seafood sustainability program that is based on the standards from some of these eco-labels.

But what do these labels really mean? We examined various seafood certification programs and unfortunately, these labels do not always represent what consumers expect.

Our research reveals a variety of flaws and inadequacies associated with the eco-labels analyzed and suggests that private labels may not be the most appropriate means to convey neutral, credible information about seafood. While the intent to raise awareness about sustainability among seafood suppliers and fish farms is admirable, it is questionable whether these labels are actually increasing sustainability in the marketplace.

This report proposes that in order to provide consumers with much-needed, unbiased and well-regulated information, the federal government should introduce and oversee standards for eco-labeled seafood. Until that time, consumers can use our guidelines and recommendations on safer seafood choices, as well as tips on other seafood-related concerns at the end of this report.

Findings

  • The eco-label certification programs reviewed in this report demonstrate inadequacies with regard to some or all of the following: environmental standards, social responsibility and community relations, labor regulations, international law, and/or transparency.
  • Eco-labeling programs may cause increased public acceptance of products from controversial farming operations, such as coastal shrimp ponds and open-water aquaculture.
  • Eco-labeling programs fail to promote local seafood options or account for the miles that imported seafood travels.
  • Existing eco-labels have the potential to override the authority of governments, particularly in developing countries.
  • Each of the examined eco-labels that certify wild fisheries fails to meet Food and Agriculture Organization criteria for eco-labeling and certification programs for wild fisheries.
  • Financial constraints have affected the ability of some otherwise eligible fisheries to attain certification.
  • For some programs, there is a conflict between the intent to promote change within a certain fishery and the product labeling program, which can place a seal of approval on a product from a certified fishery before it has made conditional improvements in ecological performance to actually meet the standards for the label.
  • Eco-labels should not be permitted for forage fish. These types of fish are processed into fishmeal and fish oil for use in various products, including animal feed. Depleting forage fish stocks can damage marine food webs and negatively impact food security in developing countries.