Consumer assurance: market-based quality schemes, certification and traceability, ecolabeling, retailer specifications

Fish and fishery products are the most internationally traded food commodity. Over one third (live weight equivalent) of the total yearly production has been entering international trade during the last decades. Aquaculture production, especially of shrimp, salmon, tilapia, catfish and bivalves, contributes significantly to this trade. About half of global fish trade in value originates in developing countries, whereas around 75 percent is destined to three major markets, the European Union (EU), Japan and the United States of America. These three markets dominate fish trade both in terms of prices and market access requirements.

In aquaculture, this increase in international fish trade has led to the emergence of major issues related to i) environmental impacts of aquaculture as a result of its increasing role for fish food supply, ii) consumer protection and food safety requirements, iii) animal health and animal welfare, iv) social responsibility and v) traceability and consumer information along the aquaculture supply chain.

Consumer protection and food safety remain a major concern, particularly in light of the increasing complexity of supply chains and the greater awareness and demand of consumers for safe and high quality food, exacerbated by the recurrent food safety scares since the 1990s. Aquaculture is no exception, and aquaculture products have been subject to close scrutiny for their safeness for consumption. For example, the EU alert system for food and feed indicated that fish and fishery products have often been responsible for a large proportion (sometimes the largest – up to 25 percent), of food safety and quality alerts during the period 2000–2005. Of these, aquaculture products were involved in 28 to 63 percent of alert cases, mainly because of the presence of high residues of veterinary drugs, unauthorised chemicals and bacterial pathogens. Similar safety problems have been reported by the food control authorities of other major fish-importing countries.

In addition to food safety, concerns over environmental protection, social responsibility and animal health have been receiving increasing attention. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have tapped into or driven these concerns and developed strategies to wield influence over consumers’ purchasing decisions and especially over the procurement policies of major buyers and retailers. As the last link in the supply chain between producers and consumers, retailers aim at translating and transmitting these consumer demands by imposing private standards and certification back through the supply chain, especially on producers and processors, to reflect their increased responsibility towards consumers and to prevent any risk to their reputation. These developments have resulted in the proliferation of aquaculture standards and certification schemes designed to trace the origin of fish, its quality and its safety, and the environmental and/or social conditions prevailing during aquaculture production, processing and distribution of fish and feed. Small market niches are governed by specific standards such as “label rouge” in France, “Quality Mussels” in Ireland or Canada or “organic farmed fish” labels. Furthermore, some countries and producers’ associations have established labels to certify implementation of best practices or codes of conduct.

As standards, certification schemes and claims proliferate, their value is being questioned. Producers and producing countries in particular question whether these private standards and certification schemes duplicate or complement government work, especially in relation to food safety and animal health. Likewise, consumers ask if private schemes really provide better protection for them and the environment and/or contribute to social equity. This unprecedented development in market standards raises the following major issues:

  • If trade liberalisation is to bring benefits to all, including to developing countries, then rising market standards should not constitute a barrier or additional impediments for entry to major markets by producers and processors from developing countries.
  • In the absence of regulatory frameworks, the setting/adoption of market standards by a company or a coalition of companies or retailers with significant market power may increase the risk of anti-competitive behaviour and the companies may use this power to impose, for instance, lower prices throughout the supply chain.
  • How are the boundaries defined between public regulations on the one hand and private market standards on the other? And who is responsible for what? While governments that use standards as trade barriers can be challenged through the rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO), what mechanism should be set to deal with companies who adopt standards that can constitute technical barriers to trade?

Some argue that meeting and adhering to market standards can have a positive effect, including for developing countries, in particular by spurring new competitive advantages and investments in technological capacity. But some governments and producers’ groups fear that these standards may disguise underlying intentions to protect domestic industries and restrict market access or add a new layer of constraints upon their competitiveness by duplicating or adding to existing food safety and quality requirements. Also, the burden of complying with these standards may fall disproportionately on small suppliers, for whom the cost of achieving certifiable status is relatively higher.

Furthermore, as certification programmes proliferate, consumers and producers face choices as to which certification programmes carry the most value. Competing certifying claims may confuse consumers, causing them to loose confidence in standards and thus depriving the approach of its value. It also raises questions about which certification programmes best serve consumer protection, the environment and the producers. Thus, the credibility of the standards and of their certification and accreditation bodies is of paramount importance.

The panel of experts will review current practices and future trends in market-based quality standards and certification schemes in aquaculture, including international initiatives to promote transparent market standards for improved safety, quality and sustainability in aquaculture.


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Global Conference on Aquaculture 2010

The conference was organised by FAO, the Thai Department of Fisheries and NACA and held in the Mövenpick Resort and Spa, Phuket, Thailand, 22-25 September. The conference was the third in a series of aquaculture development conferences, following on from the Conference on Aquaculture in the Third Millennium held in Bangkok 2000, and the FAO Technical Conference on Aquaculture, held in Kyoto 1976.