Seafood retailers in the United States still have nearly one year before mandatory country-of-origin labeling is implemented. Seafood retailers in Ireland don’t.

This past summer, European Union regulations on fish and seafood labeling went into effect in Ireland. For the first time, seafood retailers in Ireland are legally required to include specific information, including country of origin, whether it was farmed, the catch area and the common names for the species, on the labels of fish and seafood products.

“We believe that consumers have a right to know if their salmon was farmed in South America or Donegal and if their mussels were grown in New Zealand or West Cork,” says Richie Flynn, executive secretary of the Irish Salmon Growers’ Association. “In food which is generically available, such as salmon, consumers in stores and restaurants in Ireland very often ask where the product is from without any need for prompting. There is a very strong belief in supporting local jobs and a belief in the quality of local produce. Labeling is one way of ensuring that question is answered truthfully and transparently.”

The new EU regulations should provide clarity and ensure that the seafood industry does not mislead consumers through ambiguous labeling, says Alan Reilly, deputy chief executive of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, which will oversee enforcement of the new regulations.

Clarifying labeling is one purpose of the COOL regulations here in the United States, as well. One Seattle retailer has experienced the inequitable practices of some retailers’ labeling policies.

“For us, (COOL) will be a positive,” says Tom McDonald, director of seafood for Quality Food Centers in the Seattle area. “We want to tell our customers our prawns are from Thailand and our tuna is from Hawaii.

“We have competitors down the street who can fake selling the same thing, but they’re pulling it out of an inferior country of origin.”

According to Kate Wing, policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council, existing U.S. laws allow many fish to be labeled as something they aren’t. Consumer Reports magazine conducted a test in 2001 that sent shoppers into grocery stores to purchase red snapper. Wing says the report found that six of the 11 samples of “red snapper” were actually other species, including the two most expensive samples. She says that country-of-origin labeling is one way to address the serious information gaps in labeling seafood for consumers today.

While some are fighting for what should be on the labels, others are fighting for what should be labeled.

The United Fishermen of Alaska disagree with exempting processed fish (see Exclusions under The covered commodity later in the story), saying that salmon in a can is still salmon.

Canning does not materially change salmon, they say, it just transforms it into another form of the commodity.

“All wild-harvest fisheries would benefit from the public knowing that No. 1, they had a wild, healthy and wholesome food product at their disposal in the grocery store,” says Scott McAllister, co-chair of the marketing committee for the UFA. “And No. 2, the trickle down of that knowledge would eventually find its way back to the fleets and the fishermen involved.

“It’s a consumer-rights issue as much as it is an industry that needs some protection from cheap foreign production of like domestically produced food items.”

Whether it’s domestic or foreign, Flynn says consumers deserve the option to make that choice.

“Consumers are entitled to buy cheap imports if they so wish, but they must be given an honest choice and not misled about the origin of their goods,” he says.

Cheap foreign production is what has the American Frozen Food Institute requesting its products, such as all frozen seafood, be excluded.

In a white paper addressing the voluntary COOL guidelines, the AFFI expresses that
although the COOL system was designed in theory to create a marketable advantage for U.S. products, it may, in practice, increase sourcing of some imported products and encourage relocation of processing facilities outside the United States. It cites the complexity of labeling a bag of frozen shrimp that combines farm-raised shrimp from one country and shrimp from a different country that is harvested in the wild.

Confused? Read on for specifics on the voluntary guidelines, which, according to the USDA, are blueprints for mandatory guidelines effective Sept. 30, 2004.

The retailer
Seafood retailers are required to comply with COOL regulations only if their stores sell fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables with an annual invoice of more than $230,000 (as identified in the Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act

and through PACA licenses). This legally exempts fish markets.

The covered commodity
Fresh and frozen farm-raised and wild fish and shellfish, which include fillets, steaks and nuggets, are considered covered commodities. To be considered wild, fish and shellfish must be naturally born or hatchery-raised and harvested in the wild. This excludes net-pen aquaculture. 

Exclusions: Processed food items are covered commodities that are materially changed or a combination of ingredients that includes a covered commodity but in which the identity of the processed food item is different from that of the covered commodity. Processed food items include cooked, cured, smoked or restructured fish or shellfish (i.e. canned tuna, canned sardines and restructured fish sticks). In-gredients in processed food items with different identities, such as salmon in sushi, crab salad and clam chowder, are excluded.

The label
Country of origin can be provided by label, stamp, mark, placard or other clear and visible sign on the covered commodity, package, display, holding unit or bin at the final point

of sale. It may be typed, printed or hand-written and must be in English; additional accompanying languages are permissible. Symbols (flags, national symbols, etc.) cannot be used to denote a country of origin, but may be used in conjunction.

In addition to country of origin, retailers must label all fish “wild” or “farm-raised.”

United States: Wild fish and shellfish must be derived exclusively from fish and shellfish harvested in U.S. waters or by a U.S. flagged vessel and processed in the United States or aboard a U.S. flagged vessel. Farm-raised fish and shellfish must be derived exclusively from fish or shellfish hatched, raised, harvested and processed in the United States.

Mixed origin: If products were harvested in one country or by a flagged vessel of one country and processed in another country or aboard a flagged vessel of another country, they should be labeled as such: “Harvested in Country X (as applicable), Processed in Country Y (as applicable).”

For example, “Shrimp harvested by a Japanese vessel and processed in the United States” or “Farm-raised fish hatched in Canada, raised, harvested and processed in the United States.”

Blended: Each constituent must be labeled on products of different origins that are combined for retail sale, such as seafood mixes. For example, “Cod, Product of Alaska; Shrimp, Product of Thailand; Scallops, Product of China.” If, after blending, the products cannot be individually identified, then they must be labeled by prominence of weight. For example, a bag containing shrimp sourced from multiple countries must specify the country of origin of each of the sources in order of their prominence by weight.

Imported: Labeling will remain in conformance with existing federal law at the time the product arrives at the U.S port of entry. For example, imported salmon in a consumer package would retain the origin of the exporting country.

State and regional: Marketing programs like Alaska’s Finest Seafood, Maine Lobster and Louisiana Shrimp will still require country-of-origin labeling.

For details about paperwork, fines, time and cost, see Pages 12-15 in the September issue of Meat & Seafood Merchandising. 

Retailers in the United States could face up to a $10,000 fine for willful violations of mandatory country-of-origin labeling laws. Under recently adopted Euro-pean Union labeling regulations, sea-food retailers in Ireland guilty of noncompliance could be fined up to 3,000 Euro (currently about $3,245), be imprisoned up to six months or both.

This article first appeared in the September issue of Meat & Seafood Merchandising magazine.