Today’s seafood consumer wants to know exactly where her fish comes from.

But she wants a lot more than just that. She also wants to know how it was raised, whether it’s safe to eat and the details of how it got from its home to her grocery store seafood case.

It’s a lot, but today’s top suppliers know that it’s essential to doing business in the 21st century. Some even say sustainability and traceability are pulling even with product quality as the top consideration in consumers’ minds.

Casey Marion, director of sustainability initiatives and quality management systems for Jacksonville, Florida-based Beaver Street Fisheries, says the concept of traceability is related to food safety and quality and having the ability to trace back an issue to a plant, farm, or boat based on a particular lot or shipment number.

Transparency, on the other hand, is more about what he calls the “key data elements” that are associated with a particular supply chain. Transparency often involves supply chain mapping and truly understanding everything that goes into a particular retail product.

Both, he says, are essential in today’s seafood industry. “They’re crucial to doing business with any major retailer and especially in private labels,” he says. “There must be full traceability and transparency all the way through the supply chain.”


Knowing your suppliers

The first step in developing a first-rate traceability and transparency program is to know exactly where your fish is coming from, says David Pilat, vice president of business development for Washington, D.C.-based Blue Circle Foods. Being close isn’t good enough.

“If you’re saying it’s Maldivian tuna caught in this manner from this area, it doesn’t mean anything if it’s not true,” he says. “You have to actually get to know your fishermen. It’s why we work with a lot of independent and family fishermen. We go there to make sure we’re getting the fish we’re supposed to be getting. You know the catch method is correct, you know the area is correct.”

After establishing that close personal bond with your fishermen, the next step in creating a good sustainability program is to choose a trace register system that can ensure traceability from sea to plate.

With trace register, a fisherman inputs data relevant to the catch before sending product to an importer or other middle man. The importer then inputs the data stored on the box holding the product before shipping to the retailer. The retailer then makes his or her own survey of the data to ensure the product met the company’s sustainability goals along every step in the cold chain, Pilat says.

Traceability is “the ability to accurately trace the origin of the seafood species that we source without employing measures designed to mislead,” says Patrick McBride, a sales director at McKinleyville, California-based Wild Planet Foods.

Transparency, he adds,  is “our efforts to communicate and make this information easily available to all consumers, users, and buyers of Wild Planet products.”

Although traceability is a key component of insuring the sustainability and proper harvesting of seafood, it doesn’t guarantee those things, McBride says.

“It’s only the beginning. You can certainly trace seafood back to an unsustainable catch zone, catch method, or black market vessel, at which point traceability sheds light to the consumer of its origin, good or bad.”

Traceability, he adds, provides consumers with the tools needed to make informed decisions on their seafood purchases. Traceability and transparency not only shift the power to the consumer, but also hold the providers of seafood accountable to the methods and tactics they employ when sourcing seafood from the ocean.

It’s crucial, Marion says, that producers and their partners up and down the supply chain — and even sometimes competitors —  have an “all for one, one for all” attitude to make sure that traceability and transparency programs work as well as they can.

“In this day and age, there should be no secrets with respect to traceability and transparency,” he says. “We all have our proprietary niches, but in the quest to solve issues within supply chains, it’s critical that we all work together in solving issues that may be lurking in supply chains. When it comes to transparency, no one is perfect, but we strive for excellence, keep pressure on our supply chain and work with industry-led initiatives that address critical issues surrounding labor and illegal fishing.”

The cost of insuring sustainable, traceable and transparent seafood is costly, McBride says. However, it’s a cost Wild Planet willingly pays to support its overall mission to change the way suppliers harvest the ocean globally. 

“That cost is clearly reflected in our price on the shelf and in our price point with our foodservice items,” McBride says.


Educating the consumer

Another way Wild Planet offsets the cost and justifies its price points, he says, is by focusing on consumer education rather than throwing marketing dollars at advertisements and expensive retailer programs. “Educating the consumer to make proper choices in their seafood purchases has been a key component to our success and has paved the way for us to be the leading supplier of sustainable shelf-stable seafood products.”

There’s no doubt, Marion says, that having robust traceability and transparency programs isn’t cheap. But he says it’s the cost of doing business responsibly.

Pilat says the company hasn’t seen a net cost increase due to traceability and transparency. “Of course there’s always a cost with any system, but if you’re paying thousands a year for traceability, selling thousands of pounds of fish, you’re ok with. It’s worth it for what it gives you. You build up trust over time.”

The challenge for seafood suppliers now, Marion says, is to begin streamlining all the data that’s generated from transparency-related initiatives. 

“Over the past ten years, there’s been a significant amount of data generated related to the various certification schemes associated with GFSI, social responsibility audits, NGOs, chain of custody and increasing regulatory requirements,” Marion says. “Needless to say, all that data is mounting and has to go somewhere, and many of our suppliers now require data compliance sites  for us to publish and maintain the data.”

That, he says, is driving the industry to look for “a silver bullet,”  and companies are on the sidelines waiting to see if blockchain technology will streamline the data management process.

The importance of traceability and transparency has increased exponentially in recent years, Pilat says.

“When I worked behind the case 20, 25 years ago at a retailer it was all about quality,” he says. “Customers would ask, ‘When did this come in, how fresh is it, can you get it from the back?’ There was never a question about traceability. That’s changed.”

Quality is still consumers’ top concern, Pilat says, but just barely — and maybe not for long.

“Understand where something comes from is now neck in neck with quality, maybe tied for no. 1.”

Blue Circle Foods has always been at forefront of traceability, Pilat says. “We’re always looking for what’s the greatest, what’s best, what’s next.”

When it comes to getting the word out about traceability and transparency programs, a lot of it, Pilat says, depends on what the retailer wants.

“When I was in retail we had strict rules about what was printed on package,” he says. “We really let our retailers dictate what they like to see, within reason, of course.”


From fishery to fork

The Washington, D.C.-based Marine Stewardship Council’s Chain of Custody Standard is designed so that every fish that has met MSC’s sustainability standard can be traced along the supply chain back to a certified fishery, says Brian Perkins, the group’s regional director for the Americas.

MSC-certified fish and seafood are separated from non-certified fish during processing, are clearly identified and remain segregated throughout the entire chain until they ultimately reach the consumer.

“Traceability gives consumers the confidence that they are eating the fish that it is marketed as and hasn’t been swapped out for another fish,” Perkins says. “This eliminates the chance for seafood fraud.”

In 2016 the MSC conducted DNA research to identify whether MSC-certified seafood was meeting its traceability requirements. The results showed that mislabeling rates for MSC labeled seafood are less than 1%.