How much information does the consumer need or want?

Regulation (EC) No. 104/2000 on the EU-wide uniform labelling of fishery and aquaculture products was implemented by the fish trade and industry largely without complaint. The new regulation (EC) No. 1379/2013 is meeting with resistance, however, because the costs are high and the benefit small. A lot of people doubt whether consumers really want or need to be provided with such comprehensive information on the labels of the foods they choose.

In the past, the fresh fish trade was very straightforward. When people bought fish they trusted their fishmonger, their own nose and other sensory impressions. Admittedly, there is a definite need for other arrangements today – after all, only a small share of the fish and seafood eaten in Europe comes from the waters on our own doorstep. Fresh salmon from Norway, sea bream from Greece, and trout from domestic production, much of it already kitchen-ready filleted and packed hygienically under protective atmosphere for self-service shelves – the variety of fish species, processing and packaging forms offered makes orientation increasingly difficult for consumers when shopping. Without product-related information on the label, even well-versed fish fans would probably be rather lost and helpless. But what information do the customers need to get about the product they are buying, and how detailed should it be?

With regulation (EC) No. 104/2000 on the common organisation of the markets for fisheries and aquaculture products and the corresponding implementing regulation (EC) No. 2065/2001 the EU Commission made clear specifications in this regard. Since 1 January 2002 all fishery products that are placed onto the market in more or less natural condition have to be marked at retail level with the following information:

The fresh fish product labelling at this service counter offers all the information required by EU regulation (EC) No. 104/2000.

• The commercial designation of the fish, crustacean or mollusc (for example “cod”) and the scientific name (that would be “Gadus morhua” for cod)
• The production method, mainly fishery or aquaculture. In the case of marine fishes this information can be omitted if the trade name and indication of the catch area make it clear that the fish was caught in the sea. For species from aquaculture the labelling “Salmon from aquaculture” or “Trout farmed in France” would be appropriate.
• The catch area. For fishery products, indication of the catch area on the basis of the FAO scheme is sufficient. This divides the world’s oceans into 12 regions (cod could, for example, come from catch area 27 “North East Atlantic”). In the case of products from aquaculture the country in which the product completed its final farming phase must be stated.

This information is intended to provide more transparency within the fish trade and strengthen consumer confidence in the fishery products offered. Thanks to the meanwhile Europe-wide uniform labelling consumers in all EU member states could now learn where the fish in the counter came from, and whether it was caught wild or produced in aquaculture. Better informed consumers who were familiar with the fish industry could even approximately recognize from the indication of catch area whether the fish came from a productive fishing region or whether the fishing grounds were threatened by overfishing. This, however, already revealed a shortcoming of the new regulation, for the 12 FAO catch areas are much too big to allow any firm conclusions. As a guide for all customers who are looking for products from sustainable fisheries the producers thus mostly print a logo onto the label that confirms that the fishing activity harmed neither the stocks nor the environment. In Europe, traders and many producers rely on the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) whose blue seal is in the meantime relatively well-known in many countries.

It is difficult to understand why the labelling requirement only applies to some, but not all, fishery products. Whereas fresh fish, whether live or gutted, filleted or minced, dried, salted or in brine, smoked fishes, frozen products with fish, and fresh, processed and frozen crustaceans and molluscs (mussels, snails and squid) have to be marked with all the details demanded by the EU regulation, some products, particularly more highly processed products, are excepted. For example breaded fish products, fish products with sauces, marinades and canned fish, surimi, fish salads, gourmet fish dishes or caviar. This is not easy to understand because products such as canned fish or delicatessen salads are mostly produced according to the same recipes and always with the same ingredients for which there are long-standing delivery arrangements. This means it would be much easier to state the fish species, origin and production method of these products than of fresh fish in the counter which, depending on availability, can vary from day to day. And something else that is hard to understand is the ruling that the labelling requirement only applies to trade but not to restaurants and catering establishments.

 

One regulation often leads to others

Although the requirements of regulation 104/2000 should already have been a matter of course for professional traders even before they came into force, their implementation in practice sometimes caused unexpected problems. One of them concerned the fixing of permissible common names for some fish species that can vary even in one and the same country. Taking Germany as an example: nearly everywhere there the fish species Perca fluviatilis, English “perch”, is called “Flussbarsch”, but not around Lake Constance, where it is called “Krätzer”. And in German-speaking areas of Switzerland it is mostly called “Egli”. More uniform standards for the common names are thus indispensable and would be very helpful because consumers are hardly likely to know the scientific names of all the fish species available at the retailer’s. But these are essential in trade, because they are stated on delivery notes, invoices and other documents that accompany the products along the supply chain. Right up to the fish counter where the scientific name has to be declared together with the common name. This is sometimes too much even for fishmongers and so in a lot of EU countries there are in the meantime lists showing the common name, the “official trade name” of the species, and the scientific name. Alternatively the trader can also declare the scientific name on a poster or bill board as long as this is positioned so that it is clearly visible and legible for customers.

As a rule the lists with the trade names, i.e. the list of permissible fish names, under which the products are offered at the fish counter, are drawn up by expert commissions or similarly authorized bodies and constantly updated. In Germany, the responsible body is the Bundesanstalt für Landwirtschaft und Ernährung (BLE) [Federal Agency for Agriculture and Food] which is based in Hamburg. The directory of trade names is by no means rigid and inflexible but can be extended or changed at any time after submission of a reasonable request. And the commission does not always find an appropriate name immediately so it might be quite a different name that is ultimately used by consumers. An example of this in Germany is “Pangasius”: the experts initially found the original name too complicated and suggested the name “Schlankwels”. The market and consumers soon proved them wrong, however! The nomenclature commissions have particular difficulties when they have to find appropriate names for new species on the market. The name should, of course, be easy to remember, and it should be suitable for the fish concerned. Simply translating the English common name is often not feasible, for example because every second perch is called either seabass or seabream and flatfishes are mostly called plaice or flounders. Creativity is needed then since the name is one of the decisive factors that will determine whether a new fish species will be successfully launched onto the market.

Standard wording is helpful when it comes to information on the catch area or the country of production of fish products. In the case of products from inland fisheries the country (state) in which the fish originated has to be specified. In the case of products from aquaculture only the country (state) must be named in which the fish, crustacean or mollusc species completed its final development phase. For products from deep-sea and coastal fisheries the catch area must be named: either according to the number code of the FAO catch areas (FAO catch area 27 would be the North East Atlantic, for example) or by stating a clearly defined geographical name such as North West or North East Atlantic, Mediterranean, Black Sea, Indian Ocean or Baltic. These are only minimum requirements, however, and they can be further expanded if the producer wants to draw attention to the regional origin of a fish product, for example.

If a fishery or aquaculture product has been defrosted prior to sale in the fish counter this has to be clearly stated on the label with “defrosted” to draw the customer’s attention to the fact. Some traders try to get around this requirement by writing the vague term “refreshed” on the label instead of “defrosted”. The indication that a product has been defrosted does not, however, apply to products for which the raw materials were delivered frozen and then defrosted for processing. Smoked wild salmon, for example, is mostly delivered to Europe frozen and then, after smoking, arrives at the fishmonger’s seemingly “fresh”.

Customers can’t only see the expiry date, ingredients and nutritional values of this herring salad but also the day it was caught, the fishing vessel, and the port of landing.

 

Expiration date for loose counter products gives false sense of security

As already mentioned, only some, but not all (particularly more highly processed), fishery products have to be marked according to the EU regulation. But it is permissible for producers to state such information voluntarily on the labels of processed products that are not bound to this requirement if they so choose. In Germany the members of the Association of the German Fish Industry and Fish Wholesale Trade committed themselves in 2008 in an initiative to label voluntarily according to the EU regulation processed marine fish products that had so far been exempt from the labelling obligation, for example full and semi-preserves, marinades, fish salads, salt fish products, breaded and other frozen fish products. This declaration is based on the legal requirements of the European regulation (EC) No. 2065/2001. When specifying the catch area, companies even go well beyond the EU requirements, basing them on scientifically distinguishable fish stocks. In the case of longer lasting products such as frozen products, the association also recommends its members to state the year in which the fish was caught in addition to the catch area. In doing so they want to avoid a product perhaps being viewed critically later on should the condition of the stock from which the fish was taken deteriorate within the shelf-life period. In Germany the internet portal “Fischbestände online” can be used as a basis for assessing stock situation. This website is maintained by fisheries scientists from the Thünen Institute and offers completely neutral current information on fish stock status.

The labelling requirements also apply to imports of products from fisheries and aquaculture. The responsible authorities in the EU member states assess the conformity of the product documents with the legal labelling requirements at the point of import. Imported products that fall under the labelling requirements also have to bear the scientific name, the registered trade name, the catch area or country of origin and the production method. Since the introduction of the fisheries control regulation on 1 January 2010 the traceability principle from the catch to the retailer’s applies in the EU to all fishery products. To this purpose at all stages of the supply chain various labelling and control obligations were introduced that range from the labelling of individual fishing vessels and fishing gear to coded labelling on commercial packaging. In Germany, for example, consumers can look for an oval identification label that is printed on the labels of fish products. This label offers information on the country and the company in which the product was last processed or packed (but does not offer information on the origin of the raw materials).

Anyone who believes that, with that, fish products were adequately labelled and the customer sufficiently informed underestimates the regulatory bureaucrats in Europe, however. On 6 July 2011, after three years of tough negotiations, the EU Parliament passed the compromise package for the new Food Information for Consumers Regulation. This replaces at European level the previous labelling regulation 2000/13/EC and the nutrition labelling regulation 90/496/EEC. When the regulation comes into force everywhere after the agreed transitional periods of three to five years the information given on the labels on nutritional value, origin, or allergens is to be even more far-reaching and more easily readable. All producers are obliged to state the nutritional values of their products, which they had actually so far mostly done voluntarily in the form of a table. This means that in future all pre-packed foods will be marked with the product’s calorie content and the six nutrients fat, saturated fatty acids, carbohydrates, sugar, protein and salt (the “Big 7”). Any included allergens must be visually highlighted (for example by a different font or a striking background colour). This obligation also applies to unpacked foods (“loose products”) although it is still largely unclear how products such as oysters, lobster or other seafood that might possibly cause allergies can be labelled.

Fishery products which may give the impression that they are made of a whole piece of fish but actually consist of different pieces combined together will in future have to be marked “formed fish”. In the case of frozen fishery products the date of freezing must be stated. Unfortunately, the EU regulation does not only provide better information for the consumer but also leads to an increased administrative burden and considerably higher costs for the producer. Prominent representatives of the fish industry such as Dr Matthias Keller, the Director of the Association of the German Fish Industry and Fish Wholesale Trade accuses the regulation of not being “mature”. Much of the information that will in future have to be provided on the label would not be of interest to “normal” consumers because they had neither the interest nor the necessary knowledge. Keller believes that hardly more than 5 per cent of fish buyers have a need for such detailed information.

In accordance with Article 35 of Regulation (EC) No. 1379/2013, in addition to the previously required information on the trade name and scientific name of the fish species, the catch area, production method and the information on whether the product has been defrosted, it must now also be declared what fishing gear was used and perhaps even the product’s expiration date. Particularly this latter requirement that would hit fish service counters very hard and is difficult to implement in daily business is meeting resistance. Critics complain that with this requirement the EU is going far beyond the scope of their own food information regulation which does not require that foods that are sold loose to the final consumer be provided with a minimum expiration date or a use-by date.

This requirement gave the consumer a false sense of security because once the fish was sold the traders did not have any more influence on whether the cold chain was maintained or how a fish product was handled. Already for that reason it was not possible to state an exact “use by” date, and durability statements for loose fish in the counter were technically hardly implementable because all the data in the system and on the labels in the counter would have to be changed daily. And because sometimes different batches of one and the same fish product are presented slide by side for sale in the service counter several labels would be necessary. Since a lot of consumers are known to prefer to buy products with a longer shelf-life older products would be very difficult to sell then, despite the fact that they might be of excellent quality. Probably more food would have to be destroyed which would reduce the profitability of the counter and go against any ambition for sustainable use of resources. Perhaps the EU bureaucrats should simply trust their common sense here. For decades people have been buying fresh fish at the service counter to eat as soon as possible and not to store. Questions of durability and storage conditions are traditionally dealt with during the sale. Why does something that has been working well for as long as we can remember have to be changed at all?