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DOES CERTIFICATION MATTER? (Part I)

By: Sir Roy Douglas Palmer 

  is Executive Director of the Association of International Seafood Professionals (AISP), based in Victoria, Australia, and Director of Orga P/L (T/a FishyBusiness).

Even without wholescale buy-in of the concept, there’s no escaping the fact that standards and certificates have become part of the seafood value chain. But the question that often confounds fisheries and aquaculture companies is whether to apply for certification, and what are the costs and benefits of one certification programme over another.

The answer that it depends, and on so many factors. It depends on the type of certification; where you are in the supply chain; and the costs and the benefits involved. What is clear is that even if you make the decision to head along the certification pathway, your options are massive but confusing.

There are various types of certification. In the ‘good old days’ the only certificate you required was a certificate of origin and a health certificate; all of that was provided through your own governments’ processes and was fairly uncomplicated.

 Understanding history is important

National government certification used to be the norm. Some of the large global buyers started having an influence by insisting on their own food safety certification processes as a point of marketing difference and that precluded the move to independent third party certification. As this area then became somewhat of a circus with claims that one food safety programme was better than another, some clarity was brought through the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) http://www.mygfsi.com/. This was created as a private organisation, established and managed by the  international trade association, the Consumer Goods Forum (www.theconsumergoodsforum.com/) in May 2000. The GFSI maintains to this day a scheme to benchmark food safety standards for manufacturers as well as farm assurance standards.

Third party certification means that an independent organisation has reviewed the manufacturing process of a product and has determined that the final product complies with specific standards. This review typically includes comprehensive formulation/material reviews, testing and facility inspections. Most certified products bear the certifier’s mark on their packaging to help consumers and other buyers make educated purchasing decisions. The costs are generally paid by the producer and can vary depending on many variables in each of the certifications.

Organisations like World Wildlife Fund (WWF) have said ‘Third party certification is essential for the credibility, reliability, fairness and truthfulness of the claim. Without third party certification there is the possibility for any claim of sustainability to become arbitrary and discriminatory in trade and fair competition.’

The driver for change in the environmental sustainability area came when in 1995/6, Unilever, an Anglo-Dutch multinational consumer goods company faced a major challenge to their supply chain of Fish Fingers and other portion-controlled manufactured fish. They took a lead in encouraging more sustainable fishing practices and made a commitment to purchase all their fish from sustainable sources by 2005. Probably the truth had more to do with the fact that cod (the main species used by Unilever at the time) was in demand and its prices were increasing, so the company needed to find another white fleshed species that could be used in their manufacturing.

At that time they had decided that hoki from New Zealand was to be their new fish but no one in Europe knew the species and the taste was slightly different so they did what all good self-respecting marketing companies do – they found a niche area and exploited it. This niche was environmental sustainability. At that time governments, whilst no doubt interested in this area, were not in a position to certify stocks. Unperturbed, Unilever headed down their own path and established the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) with WWF. The original statement of intent can be seen at https://www.msc.org/ about-us/our-history and the MSC Fisheries Standard was finalised in 1998. The first fishery that was certified was that of Western Australia Rock Lobster in 2000. It should be noted that Unilever exited from MSC when it sold the majority of its frozen fish business in Europe in 2006.

In 2010 it was WWF’s Senior Vice President (Market Transformation) Jason Clay who made what became a major change in the approach to get the buy-in which had been lagging. He and his team decided to convince just 100 key companies to go sustainable. His theory was ‘global markets will shift to protect the planet our consumption has already outgrown’. This became a catalyst for change as WWF organised roundtable events which got big brand rivals to agree on green practices first.

The big global organisations had already had a taste for third party certification with food safety. Environmental sustainability was complex and by taking the approach they did , WWF did what all good sales people do – they provided a solution that specifically passed on the ‘risk’ to the seller rather than the buyer. The basis is simply arithmetics – try to communicate with every individual consumer – e.g. 500 million North American consumers and 700 million European consumers; or simply focus attention on the main 400 institutional buyers that purchase on behalf of the majority of them.

 How important is the FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries?

When the environment came into play and the need became greater to provide information on the sustainability of the product and harvest techniques, the industry started on a tricky pathway. It became clear that self-claimed certification would definitely not get you a ticket to play. Herman Wisse from Global Sustainable Seafood Initiative (GSSI) was reportedly quoted as saying “Seafood sustainability certification is like watching a football game without rules and no referees”. The independent third party area of certification therefore mushroomed, as that then became the focus for global buyers and specifically supermarkets.

The MSC website highlights that the standard is consistent with the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s (FAO) Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, and many other certification orgaisations have said the same. Now that GSSI (http://www.ourgssi.org/) is operative with their Global Benchmark Tool, it will be interesting to see if those statements pass the test.

GSSI delivers recognition of seafood certification schemes aligned with the FAO Guidelines and is based on international reference documents which identify and recognise robust and credible certification schemes and support other schemes to improve. The Tool consists of performance areas related to scheme governance, operational management (including chain of custody) and standards for aquaculture and fisheries certification. Possibly the most important aspect is that the ‘bar’ being set is both appropriate and achievable and that GSSI does not rank schemes because it believes that supporting a level playing field will best promote solutions to today’s complex challenges across the entire seafood supply chain. GSSI’s 7-step Benchmark Process is open to all certification schemes that wish to become GSSI-recognised. The expert-led benchmarking process involves objective assessments made against the components laid out in the Benchmark Framework in an independent, impartial and transparent manner.

On 12 July 2016, the GSSI Steering Board announced that the first certification programme that had achieved their recognition was the Alaska Responsible Fisheries Management (RFM) Certification Program.

There are certifications related to process, product, organic, social and fair trade to name but a few. There are also certifications about quality and consistency but surprisingly they are not as in demand as they probably should be. The expansion of certification has continued into areas relating to animal welfare, traceability and labour – in fact, the list could be as long as your imagination.

The need for certification/standards

Fisheries management is a government responsibility and fisheries managers should accurately communicate the status of sustainability. If they could achieve this with the public and institutional buyers, the need for verification by a third party might disappear.

Standards for aquaculture are also essential. Often seen as an offshoot of fishing, aquaculture needs to be considered as part of a new ‘blue economy’ which will change the paradigm of where our food comes from in the future rather than lock it into ‘fishery’. Building standards around responsible aquaculture can empower companies/farms and employees to understand the steps involved, and this would be a catalyst for change.

Sandards will also assure consumers that the industry is transparent, is taking action in areas where they may have concerns, perceived or otherwise, and would provide convincing arguments for buyers when confronted with anti-seafood attitudes.

For  primary producers, you first need to consider what your responsibilities are:

  • improve your product, service or organisation?
  • attract new customers/clients?
  • increase your competitive edge?
  • improve internal communications?
  • inspire added trust in your business?
  • lessen the likelihood of mistakes?
  • reduce business costs?
  • create some consistency with your brand?
  • comply with regulations?
  • make selling/exporting your goods easier?
  • take your business global?
  • improve your chances of success?
  • be seen as a leader in your category?
  • demonstrate that you care about your impacts?

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