« November 2010 Table of Contents
Top Story: Eco-label lowdown
Demand grows for certified-responsible farmed seafood, ratcheting up the competition among standard setters
By James Wright
November 01, 2010
Pangasius' rise to prominence - the catfish farmed in
Vietnam and China was the 10th most popular seafood species
among U.S. consumers in 2009 - has been nothing short of
remarkable. Despite negative press and punitive antidumping
tariffs, part of extensive efforts on behalf of the U.S.
catfish industry to keep the product out of the country,
pangasius has managed to thrive.
In addition to the murky waters of international trade
politics, the imported fish is a focal point for another
intriguing debate centering on the use of eco-labels on farmed
seafood. If pangasius (swai, tra) were to be certified against
stringent environmental, social and safety standards, would
such autonomous assurances be enough to sway federal policy or
public opinion about the integrity of the product? Would
pangasius producers and importers then have sufficient proof
for critics that their fish is safe and its production hasn't
caused ecological harm?
Efforts to improve the practices of Vietnamese pangasius
producers, as well as farmers of other seafood species around
the world, have been a mission for two leading international
organizations dedicated to setting performance standards for
sustainability. In August, both the Global Aquaculture Alliance
(GAA) and the World Wildlife Fund's (WWF) Aquaculture Dialogues
released standards for pangasius production. (WWF says the
Aquaculture Stewardship Council, or ASC, will assume oversight
of the Aquaculture Dialogues when it becomes fully operational
sometime in 2011.)
Both GAA and ASC representatives say their programs set
acceptable tolerance limits for environmental impacts while
conserving biodiversity and controlling chemical use. The two
highly competitive groups are jockeying for position in the
global seafood marketplace, hoping to convince the world's
largest seafood buyers to adopt their methodology and stock
their shelves with farmed seafood products brandishing their
particular seals of approval. Some of the nation's largest food
companies - trendsetters like Walmart and Target, for example -
already require some form of certification for the farmed
seafood they source, so the demand for certified-sustainable
farmed seafood is big and growing, particularly in the retail
The hope among the environmental community is that the most
intensively farmed seafood products craved by consumers in
developed nations - shrimp, catfish, tilapia and salmon - are
cultured carefully and in line with aquaculture standards
shaped by an international, multi-stakeholder collaboration of
producers, academics and environmental scientists. What buyers
want is validation of said responsible practices in a form that
can be easily conveyed in the marketplace.
That could be easier said than done. The evolution of
multiple sets of standards is pushing sustainability forward
but it also has raised many questions: Are two - or more - sets
of standards good for the seafood industry, with the notion
that competition begets innovation and diligence? Are the
standards really that different? Or is it simply overkill and
unnecessarily confusing for an industry that's already
One thing is clear: Eco-labeling seafood has become nearly
as competitive as the seafood industry itself.
On the market
According to Ecolabel Index, there are 349 eco-labels in 212
countries serving 37 different industry sectors. Increasingly,
B2B customers and consumers are demanding proof regarding the
origins and environmental and social impacts of their
purchases, whether it's Forest Stewardship Council-certified
timber for hardwood flooring or frozen wild seafood certified
sustainable by standards set by the Marine Stewardship Council
The Ecolabel Index shows 17 listings for fish/fisheries, but
only a handful of those resonate globally, including Dolphin
Safe, which appears on many tuna cans, MSC's oval blue logo and
the GAA's Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP) seal. Created by GAA
and administered by the Aquaculture Certification Council based
in Crystal River, Fla., the BAP program offers a "process
certification" that denotes responsible practices in one or
more of the four main production sectors: hatcheries, feed
mills, farms and processing plants.
Peter Redmond, VP of development for GAA, says the BAP
program is maturing,
evidenced by the annual market presence
of approximately 1.4 billion pounds of product - currently
shrimp, catfish and tilapia - bearing certification in one or
more sectors; about 500,000 pounds of that total is from
certified farms, the remainder from other sectors. GAA is
growing at a 79 percent annual clip, he adds, and is steadily
adding new species into the fold.
Still, Redmond is often on the defensive, fending off
assertions from opponents that BAP certification is
industry-driven and not stringent enough. He says the Seafood
Choices Alliance Seafood Summit, which took place in late
January, was a "strange experience." Held in Paris, it was an
international gathering of industry representatives,
non-governmental organizations (NGOs), academics and media.
Aquaculture was one of the hottest topics at the seminars.
"We don't regard ourselves as an NGO, but maybe by
definition we would be. That meeting was very much an
NGO-dominated meeting, and you got the perception talking to
people that, 'It's great that the ASC has arrived; it's the
solution,'" says Redmond. "I kept thinking, 'By the way, BAP is
already in place.' It was out-of-hand dismissal."
Redmond stoked the competitive flames at the conference when
he inferred that BAP standards don't merely "exist on paper"
and that progressive buyers can find certified-responsible
farmed seafood now.
"I would say that part of this [competitiveness] is
business, so the need to have standards is as much a
driver as anything else," the former Walmart
"I'm an old retailer, and we deal in facts. This is a world
where you need real substantive answers and with ASC there
While the ASC and its yet-to-be-seen eco-label remains on
the horizon, BAP standards have gained a solid foothold in the
global seafood market over the past several years. Redmond
notes that BAP has 26 endorsements from retailers, including
his former employer, as well as numerous suppliers, primarily
throughout North America. BAP is a "solution to their needs,"
says Redmond, who adds that some NGOs would simply rather
endorse standards created by NGOs.
"The biggest concern I have is the ASC is perceived as the
gold standard but certainly the one that we have is not that
much different," he says. "At the end of the day, there's not a
light-year of difference between the two.
"Secondly, if you look at GlobalGAP and ASC, they
concentrate on the farm as the be-all and end-all of
aquaculture. We also look at the production facility, which is
the point of departure for us versus an NGO. We understand that
a lot happens on a farm. But [that performance] could be a
direct result of what happens at a feed mill or at a hatchery.
And all the good you did on a farm can be mitigated by the
damage at a production facility."
Randy Rhodes, president of Harvest Select Catfish in
Uniontown, Ala., agrees. Harvest Select-owned and operated
catfish farms in Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi earned BAP
certification in 2009, and the company may seek certification
for its feed mill and hatchery in the future. Rhodes says
certification is becoming a necessity for many seafood
"Our management has allowed certification/standards to be
part of our everyday lives," he says. "There were some changes
made [to reach certification] but prior to the audits we had
already raised ourselves up to a level that was capable of
being certified. [We've learned that] there's always things you
can do better."
Harvest Select also recently earned ISO-65 certification
from the International Organization for Standardization, which
Rhodes says gives the company and BAP standards further
credibility. "That's what the ISO standard was supposed to
eliminate, [the idea] that the BAP standard wasn't tough
As an industry, domestic catfish producers view BAP as a
more viable alternative to the Aquaculture Dialogues. Industry
leaders gathered in Alabama four or five years ago and embraced
the BAP approach, which essentially comprises one audit (and
consequently one fee) for animal welfare, food safety and
environmental impacts. "We shouldn't have to meet every
standard or certification program. It's too costly for audits
and fees; retailers can't ask us to," Rhodes says.
The cost of eco-labels, which varies from producer to
producer, is a big concern. The BAP process comprises one audit
or inspection ($3,000 to $5,000 each) and an adjustable fee
based on volume - GAA's current rate is $1.25 per metric ton,
not to exceed $6,000 a year. ASC certification, according to
CEO Philip Smith, will be based on volume and value, but its
cost structure is not yet developed.
Whatever the price tag reads for either program, it seems,
is the cost of credibility.
"The credibility and rigor of the standards and
certification are paramount, but these need to be balanced by
the practicality and market acceptance," says Paul Holthus,
executive director of the Honolulu-based World Ocean Council
and coordinator of the Seriola and Cobia Aquaculture Dialogues,
which should be finalized by May 2011. "The goal of
certification is to actually affect environmental and social
conditions. However, as certification is a market mechanism,
ultimately the market will decide which of the certifications
gain the most business and consumer interest."
While certification has become the cost of doing business,
Rhodes admits that the different schemes are causing confusion.
"It's not easy for everyone to navigate."
On the way
In the wake of the collapse of the Grand Banks cod fishery
in the 1990s, the World Wildlife Fund and Unilever launched an
independent organization to recognize and reward
environmentally responsible and sustainable fishing practices,
while empowering consumers to make more informed choices. That
organization is the MSC, which became fully operational in
1999; more than 2,500 MSC-labeled products are available in 52
Jose Villalon, WWF's U.S. managing director-aquaculture,
says the forthcoming ASC will follow a similar model, operating
independently from its creators, the WWF and the Dutch
Sustainable Trade Initiative in the Netherlands. But in many
ways, he says, it will be easier to certify farmed products
than wild fisheries that often spread across wide geographical
areas and can prove difficult to quantify.
The ASC's success, he adds, depends on transparent
stakeholder involvement, which has been the hallmark of the
Aquaculture Dialogues. The Pangasius Aquaculture
Standards, a dense 55-page document, was drafted with the input
of close to 480 stakeholders. (Pangasius was unique, Villalon
says, because the vast majority of producers are in close
proximity with one another and meeting attendance was
"That way, clearly, the relevant issues are addressed; it's
not superficial. Eventually, someone scratches below the
surface to see the real impact. It's where WWF sees the real
beauty in this process," says Villalon. "To be transparent and
to reach decisions by consensus is something that for many
years we were criticized would never happen. 'It's a noble
academic exercise,' they said."
ASC standards, he adds, will not be merely suggestive or
based on "vague language." Conversely, because BAP standards
are not the product of a multi-stakeholder process, they only
serve the entry level, Villalon says.
"It's a lower bar; not as robust. It's not ISEAL
(International Social and Environmental Accreditation and
Labeling Alliance) compliant. ASC will service a more demanding
market when it comes to environmental and social issues. But
competition is good; there's room for both."
Smith, of the ASC, which will be based in Utrecht, the
Netherlands, says only elite producers should be able to
"One of the aims of the standard-setting process was to have
a target of 20 percent of producers capable of meeting the
standards," Smith says. "The aim is to encourage certification
of volumes considered mainstream, not niche."
GAA's Redmond says there's "plenty of elasticity" in the
market for multiple aquaculture standards, perhaps in a tiered
approach with one serving as a "gold standard" and another
serving producers with entry-level or mid-level aspirations.
But he bristles at implications that BAP certifications are
rubber-stamped. A technical committee comprising four NGOs,
four academics and four industry representatives draft BAP
standards for any given species. A standards oversight
committee, charged with finalizing standards, is constructed
similarly, often with individuals who have also participated in
the Aquaculture Dialogues. Such crossover, he says, is "common
to a very large degree."
"Nowhere in the process is GAA making any decisions,"
Redmond says. "We require 10 out of 12 votes to pass. So if 10
vote to pass [a standard], that means at least two NGOs have
had to turn around and say, 'It's such a good standard, I had
to approve it.' It eliminates greenwashing."
Unlike BAP, ASC certification does not cover food safety, so
producers would have to seek such certification from GlobalGAP,
or another similar program, if necessary. To reduce costs for
participants, Smith says audits by certification bodies
accredited by ASC and GlobalGAP could be carried out
Wading in the sea
Bellevue, Wash.-based QVD Seafood is one of the United
States' biggest Vietnamese pangasius importers and, as a
vertically integrated company, it oversees product from seed to
processing plant. The company holds an approximate 20 percent
U.S. market share, says President Chris December, and holds
numerous certifications, including those from the U.S.
Department of Commerce's Seafood Inspection Program and the
British Retail Consortium. When asked which certification is
most requested by his customers, he replies, "it depends."
"Different markets and different customers need specific
assurances," he says. Market demand is driving certification
forward, but the market, he adds, is overwhelmed with all the
options. To illustrate December's point: The United Nations'
Food and Agricultural Organization is also close to finalizing
non-binding guidelines for certified-responsible
"Research shows that consumers do not understand the
differences, but savvy buyers do," says December. "Until the
industry can come to agreement on what constitutes 'best,' the
reality is that we will all continue to wade through a sea of
QVD, which undertook a full evaluation of both the BAP and
ASC programs, has still not officially decided which
certification is best suited for its business (a decision is
expected by year's end). The process, December says, has
revealed differences between the two programs that are both
subtle and significant, particularly regarding allowable fish
density, antibiotic use, feed label verification and
"Both [schemes] are right in many indications. It's up to
the industry to look at it and make sure that it's one,
approachable, and two, allows for only a few committed
companies to achieve," December says. "If everyone achieves the
standards then we really don't have much."
Eco-labels like the MSC's have raised awareness of
sustainability and have created market pull for products that
can verify good practices.
Perhaps no other species could
benefit more from eco-labels than pangasius.
QVD has no tariff on its Vietnamese pangasius imports,
unlike some companies that pay duties exceeding 100 percent and
potentially face retroactive fees (see News Recap, p. 10). All
the uncertainty has "caused panic in the marketplace," December
says, and only harms consumers. "All it does is shift the price
tag to them. We're dipping into the consumers' pockets as a
result of the political pressure from a very small group."
But what may be worse than higher prices due to tariffs,
December says, is how priorities on the production side could
shift as a result of a potential trade war with Vietnam over
"It takes things that are real important, like
sustainability, and shifts them to the back burner for a lot of
E-mail Associate Editor James Wright at