How can seafood consumers know that what they’re eating is what they’ve paid for, and how can seafood producers assure that their product is authentic? In the latest development, the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) is pioneering new technology in the US to verify seafood back to its farm of origin “with better than 95% accuracy”.

How big a problem is seafood fraud? According to US ocean conservation charity Oceana: “Seafood fraud is the practice of misleading consumers about their seafood in order to increase profits. Along with ripping off shoppers, these actions can have negative impacts on marine conservation efforts and human health.

“Types of seafood fraud include substituting one species for another without changing the label, including less seafood in the package than is indicated on the label, adding too much ice to seafood in order to increase the weight and shipping seafood products through different countries in order to avoid duties and tariffs.”

Oceana says: “Although seafood is one of the most popular foods in the US, consumers are routinely given little or no information about where their seafood is from. Plus, the information provided on seafood labels is often misleading or fraudulent.

“Despite growing concern about where our food comes from, consumers are frequently served the wrong fish – a completely different species than the one they paid for. Recent studies have found that seafood may be mislabelled as often as 25% to 70% of the time for fish such as red snapper, wild salmon and Atlantic cod, disguising species that are less desirable, cheaper or more readily available. In order to prevent fraud, consumers need to know where seafood comes from and be able to trace it all the way back to the sea.”

The Aquaculture Stewardship Council’s new technology – based on trace element fingerprinting (TEF) – will, in part, help the organisation further reduce seafood fraud and mislabelling, occurrences all too common in both wild-caught and farmed seafood.

“The problem with fraudulent seafood is the unknown – if it is from an unknown source, it’s not possible to know what other issues it may have,” says the ASC’s Head of Media, Jack Cutforth.

He explains: “These could range from false claims of species or origin to bad environmental or social practices. That’s why the ASC already invests so much time and resources in protecting the supply chain of certified seafood from the farm to the plate, because consumers deserve to know exactly what they’re eating.

“By its very nature, this practice is hard to quantify and a lot of evidence is anecdotal. It would definitely be wrong to overestimate the problem, but even one case is too many, and it’s enough of an issue to warrant our attention and keep improving assurance in the supply chain. Emerging technologies like TEF can help us to do that.”

Why verification matters

Peter Redmond is Senior Market Development Manager, ASC North America. He says: “If you want to make claims about being the ‘best’ or ‘sustainable’, you must be able to verify where and how the seafood was raised. We are encouraged by the opportunity this technology brings to further strengthen our certification programme.”

The ASC, which describes itself as the world’s leading provider of farmed seafood certification, says this is “the only certifying programme that can verify your seafood is what it claims to be, where it came from, how it was responsibly raised and how it got to you.

“Now, with TEF, the ASC has the ability to trace farmed seafood with even more accuracy.”

Tests have already been conducted at several ASC-certified shrimp farms in Southeast Asia. In these, the ASC and its partners were able to correctly identify the farms of origin in all samples and achieved better than 95% accuracy compared with lower accuracy rates for conventional statistical methodologies.

“The ASC’s use of TEF technology reflects the concept that ‘you are what you eat,’” says Redmond. “The environment in which you eat, drink and live leaves a footprint in your body, and the same is true of farmed seafood. Trace elements from the local soils, groundwater, surrounding environment and food are taken in by plants and animals and, with our use of TEF technology, we can link them back to their place of origin.”

“While our label is a symbol to consumers that their product comes from a certified responsible farm, we also need to constantly adapt to new technologies,” says Wendy Banta, the ASC’s Senior Program Assurance Manager. “Now, with TEF technology, we are further pushing mislabelling and fraud out of this industry and driving what we call, ‘the new way to seafood’.”

Why is the traceability initiative better than relying on, for example, blockchain and verified distribution processes?

“All of these methods have their own advantages and they may be strongest when used together,” says Cutforth. “The Trace Element Fingerprinting being trialled by the ASC offers an excellent level of accuracy when it comes to identifying the origin of seafood. At the ASC our certification is based on individual farm performance, so that accuracy would be a big potential advantage for us.

“But the key thing is using different tools in complementary ways. TEF isn’t the only way we’re improving assurance in the supply chain. We will continue to work with our partners in shrimp-producing countries to identify risks, educate producers and

processors, and investigate thoroughly when necessary. We will continue to insist on integrity from all our certified producers and suppliers. And we will continue to develop other tools, such as digitally tracking key product data along the supply chain, to improve traceability.”

He adds: “We’re still fairly early in the process of trialling this technology. Initially it will be used by the ASC in specific investigations. Eventually its use is likely to become more routine as part of regular ASC assurance operations. But these discussions are in an early stage as we continue to test the technology.”

The organisation will continue to test and refine TEF technology and aims to implement it on all ASC-certified farms. Consumers can find the sea green “ASC-certified” responsible seafood label on more than 19,400 products worldwide.

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