Photo: avlxyz, Flickr
We know that purchasing seafood can be fraught with complicated decisions. We're right there with you at the fish counter, flipping through our pocket guides, fumbling with our iPhone apps, or eyeing some of the new labeling -- all designed to help us make better, more informed choices about supper. But environmental watchdog group Food & Water Watch said yesterday that the bevy of seafood eco-labels may be causing more confusion for consumers, not less.
"Our push is to make consumers aware of the labels out there and what they might, or might not stand for," Marianne Cufone, director of F&WW's fish program told Slashfood.
Specifically, the group criticizes certification organizations like the Marine Stewardship Council, Global Aquaculture Alliance, Friends of the Sea, Global Trust Certifications, Ltd., International Fishmeal and Fish Oil Organization, and the yet to be launched Aquaculture Stewardship Council.
"People often think that if they buy seafood with an eco-label, it's automatically a good choice," said Wenonah Hauter, F&WW executive director in the press release. "Unfortunately, those certifications don't assure that the product consumers are getting is actually eco-friendly."
Flaws, they say, include certification of fisheries that have only pledged improvements, over ones that meet all criteria; the high costs of certification, which leads to a pay-to-play environment; and/or labels that are predominantly used as a marketing tool that inherently create a conflict of interest.
Global Aquaculture Alliance (GAA), for example, was founded by companies involved with aquaculture production including Darden Restaurants (parent company of Red Lobster and Olive Garden), Long John Silver's, Inc., Cargill, Monsanto and more.
"In the case of GAA, it's the industry labeling itself, and that raises a lot of questions," says Cufone.
For Bamboo Sushi in Portland, Ore., MSC certification and the transparency that goes along with it has been key to its sustainability mission. The black cod, halibut, scallops, albacore tuna, wild Alaskan salmon and Oregon pink shrimp it serves come from fisheries that have undergone MSC certification.
While MSC has been criticized for the high cost of their certification, and for granting approval on fisheries that others deem unsustainable, Bamboo Sushi owner Kristofor Lofgren says they're the best option available for those who are serious about seafood sustainability.
"Approximately 14 percent of the world's wild capture fisheries are certified as sustainable or in assessment against the MSC standard," said Kerry Coughlin, regional director, Americas for MSC in an email to Slashfood. "The MSC was founded through a global collaboration of the world's leading fishery scientists, academics, industry experts, governments and conservation organizations. These stake holders continue to have significant input into the program to provide checks and balances and ensure improvement."
To be clear, F&WW is not pointing the finger at seafood guides like the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program or to Blue Ocean Institute's, which present guidelines to consumers interested in sustainably sourcing their seafood, but do not actually certify seafood products.
F&WW is also calling on the U.S. government to set federal sustainability standards.
"If there is certification of seafood, it should be done by the government, not private entities. It's not very clear for consumers what the actual standards are, and why they've been set the way they have," says Cufone.
"Terms like organic have been degraded because of the USDA. If the government created a sustainable seafood certification, it wouldn't be as strict as what we have now. Standards of what is or is not a sustainable fish should be left to organizations that don't have lobbyists advocating for approval," he said.