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Seafood Traceability and Eco Certification

Jason Baker | March 5, 2012

Traceability and Eco Certification have become buzz word in the food supply industry in recent years.  Consumers are much more demanding and selective in their weekly grocery purchases than ever before.  When I began working at Ketchum Manufacturing some time ago we had a nice little niche business where we sold marketing tags for fish.  Little tags that identified the company that grew or caught the fish to help distinguish their product from a similar one sitting beside it at the seafood counter.  At the time it seemed as if only the biggest or most advanced thinking companies were doing this brand recognition marketing and they were certainly the minority.

Wild fisheries like the Alaska Salmon fishery spent lots of money branding their wild product as superior to that of farmed fish.  The salmon farmers then countered with campaigns that spoke to the benefits of a source of seafood which did not deplete the natural stocks.  All of this drove even more business to Ketchum.  Maine Lobstermen battled Maritime Lobstermen and buy local campaigns were introduced.  As the years went by there were new causes of the day that inspired marketers to action and kept the Ketchum presses running.  Tags that spoke to the health benefits of oils found in their product spurred business for a season or two only to be replaced with themes around organic, naturally raised, humanely caught, and many more.  On and on it went and all the time Ketchum continued to be the world's most popular source for the tags used to deliver these evolving marketing messages.  And then it happened...three different events that changed the face of seafood marketing forever.

The first was COOL (country of origin labeling) legislation.  Both the US and Australia introduced legislation making it mandatory for companies to identify the country of origin of the product they were selling.  Then major retailers led by Walmart began to demand that all of their suppliers met stringent criteria before they were invited to supply product to them.  These two items alone changed the landscape.  Now it wasn't just the forward thinking companies that tagged product, it wasn't just the big companies.  Everyone knew they had to adhere to these new demands and if they had to invest in materials to do so, well they were at least going to add some brand recognition at the same time.  So the boom began and business was BOOMING.  The Walmart's of the world demanded their suppliers to source product responsibly.  Consumers wanted to know not just the source of the seafood that they were buying but information on how it was fed, raised, and harvested.  Or if it was wild was it from a sustainable source and was it humanely caught and handled.  Eco certification groups prospered as companies clamoured to get certified and when they did, it was a tag and signage they used to promote their attributes.

So as the consumer demanded, governments legislated, stores mandated, and companies like Ketchum prospered as the seafood section of your grocery store exploded with information to help your purchasing decisions.  And then it happened, the third event.  The world's economy collapsed.  The seafood suppliers margins tightened further, the consumer now has less food dollars to spend, governments have relaxed legislation, and retailers have price wars to hold onto their market share.  As often has been the case in the past the market shifts, it corrects itself, and the world returns closer to what it was before.  But this time however, in this seafood industry something is different.  Although the consumer may have less to spend their demands for socially acceptable source products has not diminished.  They demand high quality product and want to know the products history.  Companies have campaigns in place that you can trace your seafood back to the individual fishermen and find out dates and methods of catch, the boats used and the high school the fisherman attended.  The retailer has the same high level of expectations and stringent guidelines for its suppliers that it introduced in the last 5 years or so.  Are we mid trend waiting for the inevitable correction? I don't think so.  Traceability is here to stay.  Consumers have embraced traceability, it has become the new normal.  The world is smaller than it once was and what impacts one part of that world is no longer viewed in isolation.  So we wait to find out what the new marketing buzz words will be, but environmental sustainability and the product traceability that assures it appear to be more than buzz words and would appear as if they will be around for awhile.

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