“Sustainable Seafood Coalition” wants to bring ethics to fish retailing

A new initiative to make the labelling of sustainable fish clearer and more consistent for consumers has been launched on 26th April 2013 by industry and retailers, with the backing of the Fish Fight campaign set up by celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingttall.

The voluntary code of conduct by the Sustainable Seafood Coalition (SSC), whose supermarket and supplier members represent over 80% of fish sales in the UK, should mean “consumers will be able to shop safe in the knowledge that [sustainability] claims are meaningful and harmonised across products, retailers and brands,” SSC says. Group members including Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Birds Eye are considering a draft of the conduct, which SSC says is being brought in due to frustration at the slow pace of legislative reforms.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall said: “Consumers have a right to accurate seafood labels. Any claims about seafood sustainability or responsibility should be clear and unambiguous and have the same terms of reference – whether they are on a packet of fish fingers, a prawn sandwich or fish from your local chip shop. We can’t keep waiting for changes in the law to rein in the torrent of meaningless seafood labels, and questionable environmental claims. Our Fish Fight campaign has revealed how misleading some seafood labels can be; so we are in full support of the bold move by the Sustainable Seafood Coalition (SSC) to ensure that environmental claims are credible and consistent. ”

Supermarkets joined the SSC after being criticised in an analysis by environmental law group Client Earth of claims on 100 fish products purchased in nine leading UK retailers. It found that 32 carried claims which were considered misleading or unverified, with the information received from the retailer on the source of the product failing to allay and in some cases heightening the concerns.

James Thornton, the chief executive officer of ClientEarth – which set up the SSC – said: “Consumers are increasingly considering the environment in their seafood purchases, yet the lack of consistency in seafood labelling leaves them vulnerable to confusion. The legislative tools move slower than the problems escalate and we cannot afford to wait.”

The existing laws on seafood labelling are the European Union Fish Labelling Regulations 2003, but they only require fish products to be labelled with the species name, approximate catch area, and whether it was caught or farmed in fresh or sea water. They do not involve the use of terms such as “sustainable‟ or “responsible‟.

And while the use of the term “organic‟ is regulated by EU legislation, there are no specific laws that deal with environmental claims of this type on seafood. There are many independent eco-labelling schemes that assess fish products and provide certification based on certain environmental criteria, these schemes are voluntary.

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has the power to force companies to remove advertisements on account of vague or inaccurate green claims. However the ASA will not currently examine or challenge claims made on product packaging or labels: these fall outside of its current remit.

Critics such as consumers’ group Which? and the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) have complained that consumers seeking to make ethical choices when buying fish are often misled by an array of confusing and unhelpful labelling.

Source: The Guardian, 26th April 2013


Marinet observes: In the case of mislabelling of fish, as highlighted recently by the Client Earth survey, one wonders why the local Trading Standards Departments did not step in and prosecute the offenders? A few successful prosecutions, and the resulting bad publicity, would soon bring about permanent change. The need for a voluntary code is actually superfluous because the law already exists, it simply is not being enforced.

With regard to the initiative to establish sustainable sourcing of fish for sale, we have observed that every avenue leads to a cul de sac because every avenue opens the door to misinterpretation by the unscrupulous who want no real change. Until on-board monitoring on all fishing boats is standard with independent oversight by the informed public, just as CCTV operates, then all the schemes are open to abuse. Where we (the public and consumers) are open to abuse then, sure as eggs are eggs, we will be abused.

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