Demand for seafood at the retail grocery level has soared during the pandemic, as stay-at-home chefs desperate for variety realize that they really can cook fish at home —it’s not a restaurant-only proposition.

That increase in demand has shown a spotlight on three aspects of the seafood industry that are closely related: food safety, traceability and transparency.

 All three are at the top of the agenda for the seafood industry in Norway, said Anne-Kristine Øen, US director of the Norwegian Seafood Council.

It’s hard to talk about one, she said, without bringing in the others.

“The topics are strongly interconnected in the sense that the consumer is increasingly aware of the origin of the food on their plate, and they want to be able to find out its journey and origin story. Consumers depend on trustworthy and easily accessible sources of information.”

The Norwegian seafood industry, many of whose products wind up in US grocery stores, enjoy the support of strong systems that secure tight control quality and safety, Øen said. The Norwegian system for catch information, the internal control systems and HACCP plans for the various production plants all provide details on the fish, its journey and the sustainability efforts that were in place to raise and catch the fish.

“Together, with the overall food safety system and Norway’s harmonization with the EU through the EEA Agreement, this provides for excellent traceability through the value chain of Norwegian seafood,” Øen said. 

Worldwide coverage

The DNA Traceback platform from IdentiGEN, whose North American headquarters are in Lawrence, Kan., provides transparency to both retailers and consumers, assuring them that what they are buying is sourced from approved farms and meets the highest standards and production practices, said Kent Partida, senior vice president.

One of IdentiGEN’s customers, The Seafresh Group, has recently expanded its use of DNA Traceback to trace shrimp from Vietnam and Thailand that is marketed in North America and Europe.

DNA Traceback, Partida said, offers traceability solutions at the scale and accuracy required by the seafood industry through a network of laboratories around the globe. Global retailers, processors and aquaculture clients use the platform to verify the exact farm of origin of seafood products with accuracy, even if the product has been processed or cooked.

“The level of traceability and transparency helps the aquaculture industry strengthen its reputation for sustainability and reassures customers that products have been ethically and sustainability produced,” he said.

IdentiGEN’s success, Partida added, is driven by the company’s unique combination of science, technology and insights-driven solutions.

Now a part of Merck Animal Health Intelligence, an operating unit of Merck Animal Health, IdentiGEN now has the potential to integrate objective animal metrics into its traceability offerings.

The number of seafood shoppers who are focused on sustainability, Partida said, continues to increase. According to a recent FMI – The Food Industry Association report, the number of seafood shoppers who are sustainably focused increased from 29% in 2020 to 41% in 2021.

“Using DNA Traceback, companies have scientific assurance on the origin and quality of seafood processed even through numerous manufacturing sites,” Partida said. “It provides transparency to both retailers and consumers and assures them that they are buying seafood sourced from approved farms and meets the high standards set by retailers.

According to a recent Nielsen survey, shoppers want to understand the supply chain, with complete transparency from farm to factory to distribution, and they want details of the measures being taken to assure their safety, Partida said. The same survey reported that 73% of consumers feel more positively about companies that are transparent about where and how products were made, raised or grown.

And according to research undertaken by The Harman Group, two-thirds of customers want to have a positive impact on the environment through their everyday actions, a key reason why 32% of customers choose to buy sustainably-sourced products. 

COVID’s impact

The Norwegian Seafood Council is currently working on comments for the US Food and Drug Administration’s proposed traceability rule. To Norwegian seafood exporters, it’s crucial, Øen said,  that existing documentation and systems already in place be used as a basis for new traceability requirements.

“This will, in our view, strike a balance between the need for information on the one hand and the avoidance of increased administrative burdens on the other.”  

COVID’s impact on the importance of food safety and traceability in the seafood industry has been significant. As one example, Øen said, many more consumers have become comfortable using QR codes to look up product information online, including companies’ food safety, traceability and transportation bona fides, before making their purchase decision.

In addition, more consumers are buying fresh seafood online, another venue where it’s easy to learn more about the companies and countries their food is coming from.

“This is a part of the picture that will continue to influence the future of traceability, transparency and food safety,” Øen said. “The consumer is getting used to, and is starting to expect, having a lot of information readily available at their fingertips. 

According to 2020 International Food Information Council (IFIC) research, 60% want to know all about their food’s journey. Many companies within the food industry are becoming more transparent with their practices and the origin of their food, and Øen said that is certainly the case with seafood.

And supermarkets that work with their suppliers to deliver the information consumers crave will reap the benefits.

“There is an opportunity amongst grocery retailers and producers to showcase where, how and why food is produced today.” 

Norway has among the world’s most advanced and well-established systems for sustainability and management both in fishing and aquaculture, and food safety, traceability and transparency are three of that system’s top priorities, Øen said.

Essential to those efforts have been investments in technology.

“In Norway, fishing and aquaculture have gone high tech, with startups, businesses and researchers pushing the boundaries in technology and innovation,” Øen  said. “Norway is on the cutting edge, allowing the invaluable sharing of knowledge across industries. This is particularly true for traceability, transparency and food safety.”

Meeting higher consumer expectations

In 2020, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), whose US headquarters are in Washington, D.C., partnered with leading research agency GlobeScan on consumer research which found that the majority (64%) of US seafood consumers agree that retailers’ and brands’ claims about sustainability and the environment need to be labeled by a third-party organization.

The figure is even higher among fresh, frozen, and canned seafood consumers, and especially high for Omega 3 supplements buyers - almost 3 in 4 demanding independent ecolabeling.

“Consumers are paying attention, and it’s not enough for brands and retailers to make ‘self-claims’ about sustainability - traceability and transparency are important ways for consumers to feel they can trust the product they’re buying,” said Jackie Marks, the MSC’s senior public relations manager for the United States

One of the MSC’s newest ventures, the Ocean Stewardship Fund, aims to increase the number of sustainable fisheries around the world and supports fisheries at all stages on the path to sustainability, whether MSC certified or non-certified. 

In May 2020, MSC awarded over $899,000 USD to 15 fisheries and projects around the world through the fund. Funding was awarded to projects focused on: interactions with endangered, threatened and protected species; lost and discarded fishing gear or ‘ghost gear’; as well as fisheries moving toward sustainability. 

“Despite the Covid-19 pandemic causing disruptions to many of the projects, strong progress has been made,” Marks said. “On April 20, we’ll be announcing our second round of successful awardees, with projects focused on improving harvest strategy, bait fishing, observer safety at sea as well as progressing fisheries in the Global South toward sustainability.”

Traceability and transparency are increasingly important as consumers are becoming more aware of the connection between their health and the health of the planet, according to GlobeScan research cited by MSC.

“We’re seeing that people are asking more questions about where products are coming from, if they’re responsibly sourced and what the impact of the product is on the environment,” Marks said. “We also saw an increase in seafood sales during the pandemic – food retailers have been reporting impressive growth in sales of fresh and frozen seafood in 2020 compared to years past.”

That’s encouraging, she said, because it means consumers are cooking more seafood at home, a trend MSC hopes continues long after the pandemic.