The Truth About Eco Labels for Farmed Fish

If you’re spending a little extra money on farm-raised fish with a sustainability sticker, you may be getting short-changed.

(Photo: Roderick Chen/Getty Images)

Dec 9, 2011· 2 MIN READ
Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

According to a Pew Environmental Group funded study released Wednesday by Canada’s University of Victoria Seafood Ecology Research Group, a number of seafood eco-labels simply aren’t living up to their promises. That’s bad news for consumers who rely on those prominent stickers to figure out what’s O.K. to eat.

The study looked at 11 species of farm-raised marine finfish, including Atlantic cod, Atlantic salmon, barramundi, grouper, and European seabass. Researchers then examined environmental impacts of fish production, including antibiotic use, pathogens, escapes and sustainability of the feed. The group then compared 20 eco-labels that included organic, retail certification and third-party labels and found that many were misleading.

“Eco-labels are abundant in the marketplace, but there’s little to them but the label,” John Volpe, Ph.D., a marine ecologist and lead author of the report, tells TakePart. “Many retailers don’t provide any information other than the sticker, and give no indication to what they’re basing their claims on. There’s no meat on the bones.”

For organizations that poured valuable resources into developing and marketing their labeling programs, there’s added bad news—very little progress has been made in driving change in the aquaculture industry, says Volpe. Many eco-labeled farmed fish are on par with conventionally grown seafood, despite the higher price tag.

So which labels did best in the study? At the very top is the U.S. National Organic Standard for farm-raised salmon, (which is not yet in effect). The World Wildlife Fund’s Salmon Aquaculture Dialogue also fared well, while U.K. retailer Marks & Spencer and the seafood retail industry's label Global Aquaculture Alliance (GAA) ranked low on the list.

According to NPR, four of the 20 labels tested “scored exactly the same as the conventional average, and two labels, Global G.A.P and Marks & Spencer, got negative scores. This means their sustainability standards set the bar so low that companies doing more than the average amount of environmental damage could still obtain an eco-friendly label.”

GAA, whose members include Darden Restaurants (owners of Red Lobster) and Cargill Animal Nutrition, bit back in a press release yesterday: “[The study] failed to consider social responsibility, food safety, animal welfare and traceability.” It went on to say that although their best aquaculture practices “did not receive the highest ‘green’ ratings—given to organic or draft standards in this case—it is not the program’s objective to set standards that can only be achieved by a small portion of the industry.”

Volpe says GAA is right in saying the work was limited to environmental performance. “Eco-labels are about ecology, hence the name. Eco-labels have market traction and are potentially lucrative because they infer superior environmental performance. This the obvious place to start label-to-label comparisons. I would also point out that the majority of organic standards incorporate social and animal welfare too. The superior performance of most organic standards suggests superior environmental performance need not come at the cost of social and animal welfare.”

Ocean Conservancy’s aquaculture program director George Leonard says he’s pleased the study is getting wide attention. “If eco-labels don’t drive the environmental performance we think they’re going to, then we’ve got a problem. This report provides insight on where we are as an industry, and is a reminder that we need transparency,” says Leonard.

With aquaculture growing at the three-to-four times the pace of land-based agriculture, understanding the aggregate environmental impacts over time is especially important.

If all this leaves you feeling confused about which fish to buy, don’t despair, there are still plenty of eco-labels you can trust, though, unlike this particular study, their focus is not solely on farm-raised finfish. Our favorite guides include Seafood Watch, Blue Ocean Institute and Environmental Defense Fund, and all have free mobile apps.