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How to Read the Labels on Your Sustainable Seafood

Ashley Kosiak

April 03, 2018

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Sustainable seafood sardines school swimming

Last month, I attended Seafood Expo North America, the largest seafood event in this continent, held this year in Boston. It’s not all that surprising that the seafood industry is huge—after all, about 71 percent of the Earth’s surface is water. But what truly shocked me was the sheer number of businesses the industry touches, all of which were showcased at the Expo. Some of the hundreds of exhibitors included companies involved in: seafood (obviously), vacuum packaging, freezer vans, plastics, water-analysis tools, cargo shipping, conveyor belts, submersible robots, wheel casters, rain gear, and electrodes for back pain.

There were also businesses selling wares tied to the culinary side of the industry, such as: cedar planks and grills, seaweed, wasabi, every form of ginger imaginable, rice vinegar, dressings and sauces, horseradish and aïoli, and breading.

There was even a man in a catfish costume.

Of course, it’s an expo, so all of these companies were there for one real reason: sales. “Clean” and “authentic” were the dominant buzzwords, appearing on multiple signs and in several overheard conversations.

Next to those promises of safe, healthful foods were numerous certifications and affiliations. While it’s easy to dismiss the buzzwords as just marketing tools, the number of acronyms behind a business name is a real measure of one seafood company against another. Even after a year of working on our sustainable seafood program, Smart Catch, all the various labels left me confused and required a bit of research to wrap my head around. Here are the results of my searching, presented as a quick rundown of some of the major certifiers and players in the sustainable seafood arena: 

Certifications and Systems

Marine Stewardship Council (MSC): MSC Certified applies to fisheries that have been assessed on the sustainability and impact to fish populations and ecosystem. This applies to wild-caught fish and seafood. 

Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC): Similar to MSC, but instead focused on setting standards for international aquaculture, taking into the consideration both environmental and social factors.

Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP): A global third-party aquaculture certification program that encompasses the full product chain.

BRC Global Standards (BRC): Food safety certification program for food retailers.

Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HAACP): Another food safety system, this one established and enforced by the United States Food and Drug Administration. HAACP certification is not limited to seafood, but applies to all types of food production.

SQF Institute (SQF): A food safety and quality program for retailers and others across the food service industry.

Regulators, Non-Governmental Organizations, and Others

Environmental Defense Fund (EDF): An environmental organization, EDF works with companies and legislators on environmental solutions, often with a focus on science and economics.

FishChoice: A non-profit organization that creates tools and provides resources to help businesses buy and sell sustainable seafood.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA): United States federal agency dedicated to “science, service, and stewardship”, focused on climate and marine ecosystems.

Seafood Watch: A science-based non-governmental organization that develops seafood recommendations for consumers and businesses (“Best Choice,” “Good Alternative,” and “Avoid”).

World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF): A non-governmental organization with a variety of environmental interests, WWF’s oceans programs work with global business stakeholders, scientists, and academics in an effort to protect oceans and preserve marine life.

Other (non-alphabet soup) certifications you might find at a Seafood Expo, or at your local grocery store, include Fair Trade Certified and Food Alliance Certified

Ultimately, just like the Seafood Expo, the seafood industry is vast and complicated. These certifications and organizations were created to help protect workers, reduce environmental impact, and ensure the health and safety of consumers. Unfortunately, that doesn’t guarantee that chefs, diners, and consumers will have a clear and simple lay of the land. If you’re confused by all the Seafood Guides on the market, check out our Guide to the Guides.

Learn more about our sustainable seafood program, Smart Catch. 

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Ashley Kosiak is Impact Programs manager at JBF. Find her on Instagram and Twitter.