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The Increasing Importance of Traceability in Omega-3s

<p>It is important to human health to consume enough quality omega-3s, but the health of our planet is also an issue. As a result, we must ensure the omega-3s we consume are not sourced from threatened species.</p>

New technology is making it easier for companies to trace and communicate to consumers where their seafood and marine omega-3s are coming from, but many brand holders still refrain from doing it. And even those who are might be misleading consumers.

Oceana conducted a two-year test of 1,200 fish samples in 21 states, and found one-third were fraudulently labeled. Further, the study found that despite health, safety and conservation implications of its consumption, seafood rated lower than many meat and produce products when it comes to traceability.

It is important to human health to consume enough quality omega-3s, but the health of our planet is also an issue. As a result, we must ensure the omega-3s we consume are not sourced from threatened species.

Regulators such as ISO, as well as those in the EU and United States already demand that food importers provide traceability data. The EU regulation enacted Jan. 1, 2005, is recognized as the key piece of food traceability legislation.

The U.S. regulation goes into more detail, but follows the same principle as the EU regulation: “Traceability means the ability to trace and follow a food, feed, food-producing animal or substance intended to be, or expected to be incorporated into a food or feed, through all stages of production, processing and distribution."

The EU regulation demands a one up, one down traceability system to operate throughout food distribution chains, meaning every player in the value chain is responsible for keeping track of who they sourced from and who they sell to.

Today, the traceability regulation applies mainly to safety, but it fails to take into account food security. Securing enough food—and the right food—will be imperative for our future. For example, providing emerging markets with sustainable omega-3 sources will be key in order to avoid malnourishment.   

Consumers Care about Traceability

The Global Food Traceability Center (GFTC) has researched consumer perceptions about seafood and the key factors influencing purchase decisions. They collected data across five nations, including Canada, China, Germany, The Netherlands and the United States, and found that consumers buy seafood based on what is advertised on the label or on a sign in a store or restaurant. This means consumers highly value product labeling.

Consumers also attach a high value to proof that verifies their purchases were sustainably caught or farmed. Studies show if consumers can trust the verification of sustainability claims (through traceability), seafood companies, retailers and food service firms may capture additional market share and/or higher margins.

Beyond Traceability

But tracking where seafood sources come from is not enough. Ecosystems worldwide are challenged by illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing, which can lead to overfishing and ecosystem degradation. Looking into the condition of the species fished is where true sustainability lies, and where consumers will start to ask questions.

Last year, the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership (SFP) assessed sustainability in “reduction fisheries" worldwide (i.e., the source of most marine omega-3 oils). Specifically, the report examined the sustainability of 24 stocks of 13 species. The report showed just 2 percent of the total catch volume from the reduction fisheries in the analysis came from stocks in “Very Good" condition, which corresponds to a single fishery that fished krill.

The reason the krill fishery scored so well in the SFP report is because it takes into account the health of the biomass, as well as the ecosystem that depends on the biomass as a primary food source. This is extremely important when fishing for species low in the food chain, such as krill or anchovy. These marine species are the main food source for an ecosystem that is heavily dependent on it for survival. And the health of these “lower tropic" species will dictate the health of marine species higher up the food chain.  

Cilia Holmes Indahl (cilia.indahl@akerbiomarine.com) is the sustainability director for Aker BioMarine (akerbiomarine.com).

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