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Global Retail: Game changer

As ASC eco-label racks up milestones, industry anticipates salmon standard

by jason holland
August 01, 2013

As far as consumer-facing eco-label schemes go, the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) may be the new kid on the block but ASC-approved products have already achieved a global retail value of $88 million (€66.6 million). By the end of May, there were 416 ASC-certified products available in retail and the number was swelling at a rate of 37 per month. Chris Ninnes, CEO of the ASC, predicts the tally to top 1,000 products by year’s end.

As of late June, ASC-certified products were available in 21 countries with Australia and Ireland set to get their first products — pangasius in both instances — by the end of the summer. 

The eco-label’s initial retail breakthrough was a year ago with the launch of ASC-certified tilapia in the Netherlands. This was followed in February with the arrival of the first certified pangasius in Germany. 

In May, Sainsbury’s became the first U.K. retailer to sell a product bearing the ASC label by unveiling river cobbler, or Vietnamese pangasius. Sainsbury’s regards the launch as a key step toward its commitment for all the fish it sells to be independently certified as sustainable by 2020.

“Customers are often confused about what fish they should or shouldn’t eat due to where it’s sourced from. This gives them clear confidence that they’re enjoying a responsibly sourced fish — which tastes great,” says Ben Wheeley, fish buyer at Sainsbury’s.

These are “fantastic milestones,” says Ninnes, but what’s impressed him most is the pace of the uptake. He highlights two helpful drivers in this regard: Firstly, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) sharing its chain-of-custody platform; and secondly, contracting the MSC’s logo approval staff, which he calls a “knowledgeable and multi-lingual team,” on an agency basis. 

“Some 85 percent of all ASC chain-of-custody certification holders were formerly MSC-certified and to include ASC products within the existing certificate is essentially a scope extension and a straightforward administrative process. Using similar logo license agreements brings a familiar and well-tested system to ASC supporters,” says Ninnes.

At the moment, the ASC says it’s too early to ascertain consumer perception, but believes work done during the development of the logo suggests consumers both appreciate the design and grasp the message conveyed.

“The ASC has had great support from European retailers. I think there is good awareness of the ASC platform, not least because it has had visibility during the years that the standards were developed. Indeed, the length of time it has taken to develop the standards created frustrations, but at least we can now demonstrate credible progress and the expectation that we are delivering something the market has an appetite for,” says Ninnes.

To maintain this momentum, in partnership with the MSC, World Wildlife Fund and the Netherlands’ leading retailers, the ASC will soon pilot a seafood-promotion week to build consumer awareness of responsibly sourced seafood. If successful, the model will be rolled out to other countries.

Of the 416 ASC products available in May, 80 percent (334) were pangasius and 20 percent (82) were tilapia.

While both species are increasing in popularity, the biggest consumer breakthrough is likely to be ASC-certified salmon. With the first audits under way, and assuming the assessments are positive, Ninnes expects supplies to be available in stores within three to six months. 

To date, producers Marine Harvest, AquaChile and Tassal have made public statements of support. Additionally, Bremnes Seashore AS’ Lava Farm and the Leroy Hydrotech Hogsneset Nord Farm, both in Norway, are currently being assessed.

Ninnes agrees that salmon will be an important species for the ASC, but stresses that for the council to provide real value there must be a diversity of supply both within and across species. 

“Businesses want a turnkey solution to provide consistency and uniformity in the market. So while salmon is an important milestone for the ASC to achieve, there are many more that we are focusing on both to provide that supply but to also make the program an efficient platform to work with,” he says.

The organization’s shrimp standard is also complete, and results from pilot projects at a dozen farms were expected by the end of July. Meanwhile, it’s expected that ASC-certified bivalves will be available to consumers by the fourth quarter of this year. One company keen to go down this route is Jersey Sea Farms, which started farming native oysters (Ostrea edulis) in intertidal waters four years ago after experiencing high mortality rates with its Pacific oysters (Crassostrea gigas). 

As its name suggests, the oysters are farmed on Jersey, the largest of the Channel Islands off the coast of Normandy, France. What’s special about the venture is that until Jersey Sea Farms’ 2009 project, native oysters hadn’t been commercially grown on the island for more than a century.

Owner Tony Legg says the oysters achieved an attractive golden color, good shape and high meat content, and so he began looking at ways to promote them. Native oysters are very specific to the sites that they are grown, with regards to saltiness and meat content, and so Legg elected to use provenance as means to market the product, taking a strong lead from French wine.

The Le Catillon brand was created along with a logo that uses a 16th century sketch of Mont Orgueil Castle, which was at the center of Jersey’s oyster industry in the mid-19th century.

“To put the Jersey oyster industry into perspective, in one year it sold 64,000 metric tons of natives,” says Legg. “The population crashed in dramatic fashion soon after that.”

One thing Legg was keen to communicate to consumers was sustainability but he felt the MSC wasn’t a good fit for shellfish farming. Instead, last September he decided to run an ASC pilot project “to see how it actually worked in practice before it gets rolled out to the public,” he says. 

“I am looking to use this as a marketing tool so it has to be credible and it needs to be constantly evolving. ASC is not about just passing the criteria; farms need to continue to pass the criteria and be looking to improve further.”

Legg is confident the label will add value to his product and says it’s worth a small farm such as his “paying a few thousand euros” to go through the certification process, because consumers will recognize the logo.

“One of the advantages of ASC is it has a set of principles and a logo similar to the MSC. [Recognition] is not happening yet, because ASC hasn’t been launched for bivalves yet. But I think this is the way forward and it’s the way forward for me,” says Legg.

“Waitrose said by 2016 it will only purchase products that can prove they are from accredited sources. So something like the ASC will be essential if you want to sell shellfish through such multiples.” 

Contributing Editor Jason Holland lives in London

Find other SeaFood Business articles discussing ASC-certification here. 

     August 2013 - SeaFood Business

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