British Columbia·Analysis

Sustainable label confusion thrives in lack of regulation

Buying fresh fish without destroying the planet can be a tall order. A plethora of sustainable seafood certifications doesn't make it any easier.

SeaChoice decision to drop Overwaitea highlights challenges facing eco-conscious consumers

Few things are as appetizing as a fresh fillet of fish, but who wants to kill the planet to get one? (Elaine Thompson/Associated Press)

No one goes to the supermarket deliberately intending to destroy the planet.

Which is why labels can make shopping such a life-affirming experience: proudly rejecting that suspiciously cheap piece of cod in favour of officially approved salmon; choosing anything with the words 'Organic', 'Wild' or 'Fresh' stamped on the side; purchasing yet another ancient grain to join the untouched heaps already moulding in your pantry.

Most of us want to be good global citizens. And labels provide a kind of shortcut to help us get there.

So what is a consumer supposed to make of the decision by SeaChoice to end its partnership with Overwaitea? Or of the grocery giant's promise of a yet-to-be-announced partnership with another "national sustainable seafood program"?

Isn't the world of sustainable seafood approval and certification confusing enough already?

'It can be complicated'

"We do recognize that it can be complicated in the marketplace," says Jenna Stoner, sustainable seafood campaigner for Living Oceans, one of the groups that works with SeaChoice to evaluate fisheries.

"But there are different approaches that are suitable for different businesses."

SeaChoice trumpeted its partnership with Overwaitea in 2009; environmentalist David Suzuki appeared at a Save-On-Foods location at the time to congratulate the store on being the first major chain to come on board.

Where the fish comes from is key to whether it's considered sustainable. This salmon is farmed Atlantic, but grown in a land-based farm, which gets SeaChoice's seal of approval. (Supplied by SeaChoice)

SeaChoice isn't a certification program, but rather a type of approval system that evaluates the sustainability of a partner's fish products with red, yellow or green labels.

Green is sustainable. Red is not. Yellow you should probably feel mildly guilty about.

The Vancouver Aquarium also developed Ocean Wise, a similar program which lends its symbol of approval to products sold in restaurants, markets and a number of retail locations.

But there are other councils and organizations which also certify and approve seafood producers.

And while the vast majority may be well-intentioned, critics say the abundance of certification choice leads to consumer confusion and green-washing by less scrupulous companies.

'All voluntary programs'

Jay Ritchlin, a director-general for the David Suzuki Foundation, which oversees SeaChoice, points the finger back at government.

The Ocean Wise symbol next to the catch of the day means it has the Vancouver Aquarium’s stamp of approval. But what does that mean? (Ocean Wise)

"These are all voluntary programs," he says. 

"The environmental community and the seafood conservation community have moved to these because we really don't have a strong regulatory framework that (gives) people a really convenient and credible label, in any store they go into, to pick what's best. That does present lots of challenges."

Beyond vague statements about transparency, no one has given exact details of the split between SeaChoice and Overwaitea.

Stoner applauds the company's commitment to sustainability. But she says SeaChoice also has a duty to consumers.

"We strongly believe that companies that sell seafood hold a responsibility for the fish that they're selling," she says.

"They should be clear and transparent about where it's coming from."

'Definitely confusing'

Stoner says seafood is unique among the products we buy at the supermarket in that its hunted and gathered worldwide. But it's not the only product whose labelling causes confusion.

Valerie Ethier, a Victoria-based certification consultant with a Masters in Environmental Studies, has looked at the development of benchmarks, to compare performance in different farming systems for different species of fish.

She says the goal is to come up with a universal, global standard for seafood. Even she finds the current array of certifications confusing.

Ironically, she says, that's made her question other products, beyond seafood. Specifically ones certified as organic.

She says few busy consumers have the time to pull out their phones, look up a certification website and find out exactly what 'organic' means in each instance: "You're going to pick it out of the box and trust that it says organic."

"It's definitely very confusing."


Jason Proctor


Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and the justice system extensively.

With files from B.C. Almanac


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