Eco Labels

With ever more doctors, chefs and dietitians claiming the health benefits of eating fish, how can we as consumers ensure we are eating seafood that is caught or farmed sustainably?

Unfortunately, understanding where our seafood comes from is like sorting out the Trump family relationship with Russia.

(Transcript of Lawrence Gunther’s bi-weekly 12-minute segment on Live from Studio 5 broadcast over AMI TV and Audio across Canada)

Q. Welcome back Lawrence, maybe we should start with a quick review of some of the more prominent Eco labels?

A. There are quite a few, and they all take a slightly different approach:

  • Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch
  • Suzuki Foundation’s Sea Choice
  • Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise
  • The Marine Stewardship Council; and,
  • The Aquaculture Stewardship Council

Q. Can you briefly walk us through the differences?

A. MSC ensures fish are sustainable from catch to plate. Commercial fisheries pay to become MSC certified
A. Seafood Watch on the other hand assesses fisheries and issues ratings: Green is good to eat, yellow is under advisement, and red is unsustainable
A. Ocean wise is the only made in Canada label. They partner with restaurants and retailers like grocery stores who pay to be certified. Sea-Watch and Oceans are trying to keep on top of all this by holding labels to account.

Q. What about our government, aren’t they supposed to be responsible for making sure our food is properly labeled?

A. Canada has some of the weakest labeling requirements for sustainability in the developed world.
A. In Canada labels don’t need to include a fish species actual or scientific name, where it was caught, how it was harvested, or whether it was farmed or wild.
A. To start, Canada needs traceability rules that tell us where the seafood we buy was actually caught, and the fish we are buying actually is what the label claims.

Q. Might some see this as simply more unnecessary regulation?  Why do we need these types of labels anyway?

A. Seafood fraud is epidemic
A. Oceans Canada found as much as 41% of seafood sold in Canadian stores and restaurants is miss-labeled.

Q. 41% fraud, that’s hard to swallow, are the Eco labels solving this problem?

A. Yes and no, the Suzuki foundation’s Sea Choice is questioning the reliability and validity of both the Marine Stewardship Council and the Aquaculture Stewardship Council.
A. They claim the fisheries and farms certified by these labels frequently do not meet the actual standards claimed by these labels.
A. Problems ranged from significant time-line extensions to flexible interpretation of standards.
A. Ocean Wise is also not perfect. Many reports of restaurants using their label incorrectly or without authorization are emerging.
A. By issuing certifications with variances or conditions, or by using these labels without permission, businesses are getting a sort of “get out of jail free card”, and because they are issued the right to use the brand the companies lose their motivation to change.

Q. O.K., so they aren’t perfect, but are Eco labels making a positive difference over-all?

A. Absolutely, Eco labels address issues such as bi-catch, questionable quota settings and habitat damage.
A. And, partially due to so many Eco labels out there, and due to an increased awareness of the importance of sustainability, retailers are starting to go it alone and issue their own claims to consumers that they are committed to sustainability.
A. This is partly due to the realization that paying to use Eco labels results in no actual increase in profits.
A. Metro is one of the best supermarkets in Canada for adhering to their own sustainability policies, and yet uses no Eco labels.

Q. what can we do better ourselves as consumers?

A. Eat less meet for one, and when you do, catch your own fish and seafood, or buying fish from a local fish monger who you can trust. Better yet, buy your fish directly from the fisher, but be careful, even the program Sea to Table is now being exposed as practicing fraud.
A. Ask our restaurant servers or grocery store managers if their products are sustainably sourced. The more they are asked the question, the more they will start to ask their own suppliers the same thing.
A. As consumers with vision loss we already ask a number of questions about the products we purchase, so why not add one more that can make a difference for the planet.