On December 13, rules governing how seafood must be labeled in Europe and North America will grow even farther apart. On that date, new European Union regulations (No. 1379/2013) come into force that will require seafood to be labeled with detailed information on its harvesting and production. That’s in sharp contrast to the minimal and convoluted requirements in the United States and Canada.
The E.U. rules apply to all unprocessed and some processed seafood that is both prepackaged and non-packaged. One of the most significant changes is the need to identify the fishing gear and harvesting area. That will empower consumers to be able to select seafood harvested with more sustainable methods and from local sources.
Mandatory information on consumer labels will include:
- Commercial and scientific species name;
- Production method such as “caught,” “caught in freshwater” or “farmed;”
- Catch Area that includes the FAO area, sub-area or division for marine fisheries, body of water for freshwater fisheries and country of production for farmed species;
- Fishing gear including one of the following types: seines, trawls, gillnets and similar nets, surrounding nets and lift nets, hooks and lines, dredges, and pots and traps;
- Defrosted, if a product was previously frozen;
- Best before date or “Use by” date regarding the durability or shelf life of the product; and
- List of allergens
Aurora de Blas, a Spanish government official, presented the new rules at the Labelfish.eu conference in Vigo, Spain, on Nov. 25. ThisFish also presented on the challenges and opportunities of consumer-facing traceability at this international symposium on labeling and authenticity of seafood. The conference brought together more than 100 delegates from across Europe and the world.
De Blas also told the symposium that stricter traceability rules will come into effect on January 1, 2015. The E.U. will require all seafood to be identified by a production lot and that businesses affix to the lot “an identification tool such as a code, barcode, electronic chip or similar device or marking system.”
While in Spain, ThisFish surveyed local fish auctions, called “lonxa” in Spanish, and retailers to assess labeling practices in Europe. In Galicia, Spain’s northern region which accounts for 70 percent of its seafood production, fish harvesters must sell their catch through a network of some 60 lonxas in fishing ports. Catch is labeled in lots with bar codes and detailed information. The paper labels follow the fish right to local markets and retailers.
PHOTO: Example of a label applied to at a lonxa, a local auction house in a Galician fishing port.
At the El Corte Egles department store in downtown Madrid, ThisFish even found fresh prepackaged sushi labeled escolar. While safe to eat and legal, escolar has a bad reputation because consuming too much often gives people diarrhea. In North America, escolar is commonly mislabeled as tuna in sushi restaurants.
PHOTO: Escolar properly labelled on sushi at a hypermarket in Madrid, Spain.
Some European seafood companies are going well beyond regulatory requirements to meet the insatiable appetite for information among consumers. ThisFish visited a small cannery in Galicia that sells canned tuna to the German market. Despite the small packaging, the label included the names of all the fishing vessels that harvested the production lot, along with lot codes, plus images showing the fishing method.
Another major difference between European and North American seafood labels is naming requirements. The E.U. requires the scientific name, along with a common species name, to be labeled on fish. That’s not the case in Canada and the United States where each country only requires the common name and follows convoluted naming conventions.
PHOTO: An example of a European seafood label which includes common name, scientific name and FAO fishing area.
Robert Hanner, Associate Director of the Barcode of Life Network at the University of Guelp in Ontario, told the conference that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration manages 1,827 acceptable common names of species while its Canadian counterpart manages 876. Oddly, only 579 names overlap between the two agencies, creating a convoluted naming system in North America that can leave consumers confused.
For example, “snapper” can be labeled on various rockfish that aren’t actually a species of snapper. In British Columbia, Yelloweye rockfish, which has a brilliant red colour, is often sold as “red snapper.”
What is the result of these different labeling rules and market expectations? The Labelfish conference in Vigo heard that a new study is coming out in 2015 that shows significantly lower levels of seafood mislabeling and fraud in Europe than in North America.
Download the European Commission’s new Pocket Guide to the E.U.’s New Fish and Aquaculture Consumer Labels.