Certification – Is it worth the cost?
December 29, 2014
By Valerie Ethier
With an ever-increasing proportion of North America’s seafood originating in domestic and international aquaculture production, retailers and consumers are seeking solutions to make informed sustainable choices.
Aquaculture eco-certification schemes provide a means by which to evaluate and verify production that meets a certain standard of environmental (and/or social) performance. Unfortunately, the recent proliferation of certifications creates difficulty for producers in deciding if pursuing certification is worth the cost and, if so, deciding which certification would provide the greatest benefit.
The rise of certifications
The original emergence of eco-certifications occurred as government agencies stepped away from trying to regulate what constitutes sustainability. Although recently governments have started to re-engage and increase participation in defining ecological limits, certifications provide a voluntary regulatory interface, usually with a consumer-facing label.
Product standards and eco-certifications act as shorthand for buyers at the marketplace, a seal of approval to guide consumer decisions. Many producers are learning that certifications are becoming a necessity to stay competitive at the sales counter.
There are a number of incentives for producers to become certified. The certification label provides an easy recognizable signal to consumers that a product meets a certain level of performance, as defined by the standard. This can improve public perception of farmed seafood in areas where consumers are more wary or where there have been concerns regarding ecological impact. Although each certification sets its own targets for sustainability, the process of certification provides verification for producers since third party audits are required.
In addition to building legitimacy in the public eye, certification can provide producers with access to certain retailers, and/or retailers and buyers that require compliance with a minimum performance. Approximately 80% of major retailers in North America have sustainable seafood commitments and prioritize or limit purchasing decisions of seafood to specific certifications or rely on endorsement by environmental NGOs. As consumer demand for sustainable product grows, requiring eco-labeled seafood shifts the burden of assessment and proof from suppliers and retailers to producers.
Endorsement by ENGOs represents a standalone incentive beyond their access to markets. These programs provide recommendations to the public about environmentally friendly seafood options, including certain species and certifications that meet their criteria for endorsement. Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise and SeaChoice all recommend a number of certification schemes (all based on the MBA criteria). With the increasing number of labels on the market, there is legitimate concern of greenwashing (or false claims of sustainability) with weaker standards. Inclusion in these guides can provide further credence to claims of sustainability as well as the means for consumers to understand differences among them.
Each certification represents its own range of criteria and set targets. Some are species specific, while others cover aquaculture production in general. Third-party standards dominate the certification world, but there are also a few retailer-based standards or sourcing criteria. Rather than explore all available standards, the list below represents those most frequently seen in the North American marketplace and relevant to producers in Canada and the U.S.
- GLOBALG.A.P. (http://www.globalgap.org/uk_en/for-producers/aquaculture/) GLOBALG.A.P. holds standards that cover a wide scope of products including crops, aquaculture and livestock. The GLOBALG.A.P. Aquaculture Standard is a certification covering crustaceans, molluscs and fish that includes criteria regarding legal compliance, food safety, worker health and safety, animal welfare and environmental care. If external feed is provided, it must be sourced from a certified facility. Although the standard is a general one that is applicable to all aquaculture species, there are some specific criteria for issues pertaining to certain groups (e.g. bivalve depuration).
- Global Aquaculture Alliance Best Aquaculture Practices (GAA BAP – http://www.bestaquaculturepractices.org/)
The GAA BAP standards address environmental and social responsibility, animal welfare, food safety and traceability. There are four farm standards: fishfish and crustacean, salmon and mussel. In addition to certifying farms, GAA BAP operates a “star” rating system, with production groups assigned stars depending on how many components in the production chain are certified (hatchery, farm, feed mill, processing plant and repacking plant).
- Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC – http://www.asc-aqua.org)
The Aquaculture Stewardship Council standards are species specific and currently available for abalone, bivalves, freshwater trout, pangasius, salmon, shrimp and tilapia. Each standard was developed through a series of roundtable discussions hosted by the WWF (World Wildlife Fund) involving many stakeholder groups including social and environmental NGOs, retail companies, scientists and producers. The ASC standards cover a diverse range of environmental and social issues, setting targets intended to make certification possible for the top 20% of producers.
- Naturland (http://www.naturland.de/)
Similar to GLOBALG.A.P. Naturland holds standards covering a wide scope of products including crops, livestock, mushrooms, fruit, viniculture, beekeeping and aquaculture. Naturland is a European based third-party certification focused on promoting organic agriculture, but also includes targets encouraging social responsibility. The Aquaculture standard covers the entire production chain from hatchery through processing and has supplementary regulations for carp, salmon, mussels, shrimp, tropical freshwater fishes, macroalgae and certain finfish families.
- Canada Organic Aquaculture (http://www.ota.com/standards/canadian.html)
The Canada Organic Aquaculture Standard was released in 2012 and was developed to define organic production of a diverse range of species including seaweeds and aquatic plants, salmon, trout, tilapia, turbot, sablefish, sturgeon and molluscs. The standard contains criteria addressing species origin, prohibited and restricted substances (i.e. antibiotics, pesticides, GMOs), feed, stocking densities, environmental monitoring, health and harvesting. To aid in the conversion from conventional to organic production, the standard details the expected organic transition period. Currently no U.S. equivalent exists for organic aquaculture.
- Whole Foods (http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/mission-values/seafood-sustainability/aquaculture)
Although not technically a certification, rather a well-developed sourcing policy, Whole Foods Market is a North American retailer with criteria that they have independently designed. The Whole Foods Standard is aimed at defining environmental and health targets for the production of shrimp and finfish. Similar to the Canada Organic standards, Whole Foods focuses on restricting chemical, GMO, preservative use and setting more definite feed standards in addition to reducing ecological impacts around the farm.
Which certification is right for you?
The above list outlines some of the key aquaculture certifications in North America, but producers are left to decide amongst the many possibilities. Each standard comes with a different implantation plan and audit cost, which can be found by examining the set of criteria and contacting the standard holders.
Beyond the cost of certification and difficulty of compliance, what differentiates the many aquaculture standards? As previously noted, a key consideration can be endorsement by environmental NGOs and the resulting recommendation to consumers and retailers. One of the sources of information available to assist a producer in evaluating the different certifications is the Monterey Bay Aquarium (MBA) Benchmarking initiative. Recently MBA’s Seafood Watch Program undertook an exercise to evaluate eco-certifications against their aquaculture sustainability criteria in an effort to define which schemes are credible and environmentally friendly.
As a leader in the seafood world with significant influence and brand recognition in the North American market, the MBA’s benchmarking exercise assessed and highlights the certifications meeting their “Good Alternative” rank or better (http://www.seafoodwatch.org/seafood-recommendations/eco-certification). The certifications meeting this threshold are now recommended by MBA and other associated ENGOs that follow their criteria including SeaChoice and OceanWise.
Value of certification
Evaluation against sustainability criteria is an ongoing process as more certifications emerge or existing ones undergo updates. In addition the Global Sustainable Seafood Initiative (GSSI; http://ourgssi.org/) is an international benchmarking project currently under development. The GSSI will use a set of criteria and indicators as a platform to compare and gauge the ecological value of different standards. While the final benchmarking has yet to be released, it is an initiative to watch for especially in consideration of placement in international markets.
Although some sectors are beginning to question the long-term viability of the private certification process or fairness of the onus being on farmers, other certified producers welcome the benefits certification has provided.
Creative Salmon on Vancouver Island is recognized as the first certified organic salmon farm in North America. According to Creative Salmon’s General Manager Tim Rundle, they have been a long time proponent of organic aquaculture practices and embraced the opportunity for their farm to be verified and recognized.
“Early on we worked as a founding member of the Pacific Organic Seafood Association to help generate interest in organic aquatic farming methods and to encourage government to adopt a standard. As General Manager of Creative Salmon I participated in the process to see the Canadian Organic Aquaculture Standard developed and approved at the federal level. When Creative Salmon was ready to undergo an audit and apply for organic certification, we were well positioned for success because we have always been committed to organic principles.”
Participation in the development of a standard is another thread seen amongst producers pursuing certification. Marine Harvest (globally and in Canada) was involved in the Salmon Aquaculture Dialogues, the roundtable discussions hosted by the WWF (World Wildlife Fund) that developed the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) Salmon Standard.
According to Marine Harvest Canada’s Certification Manager Paula Galloway “We were looking for something that was more specific to our industry… something that was designed hopefully as part of a stakeholder process… so that it’s not just what industry says, but that it’s what other people are looking at and thinking are important to include in the standard too.”
In addition to finding standards that represent a spectrum of stakeholder interests, Galloway notes that Marine Harvest Canada’s GAA BAP certification and pursuit of ASC certification were also selected for their wider recognition on the marketplace. “There are others that are available, but sometimes they are more specific to other markets where we’re not necessarily selling our fish. Most of our fish go to the United States, so we were looking for something that our customers in the US as well as Canada would recognize.”
Further incentive for Marine Harvest’s ASC certification is due to their commitment to the Global Salmon Initiative’s 2020 goal (GSI; http://www.globalsalmoninitiative.org). Marine Harvest Canada was the first company to sign on to the goal and plans to have all of their farm sites certified by ASC by the year 2020.
Certification is available to farmers at all production scales and challenges will differ depending on which standard is chosen. For those who have started to think about certification or want to become certified, the following steps outline a practical beginner’s guide:
- Evaluate the certifications and decide which is most appropriate for your farm. Use the recommendations provided above or talk to contacts further down the supply chain (i.e. suppliers, buyers, retailers) for the certifications they prefer.
- Examine the contents of the certification. All of the described standards (with the exception of the Canadian Organic Aquaculture Standard) are available free on their websites.
- Use the information from steps 1 and 2 to do a cost-benefit analysis comparing the cost of compliance and the certification process versus revenue, partnership or other benefits received. Most importantly, consider whether the certification will be achievable.
- Contact the selected certification holder (or their approved third-party auditors, available via their websites) for the application and/or to arrange a pre-audit (if necessary).
- Address any concerns identified during the application or pre-audit process and arrange for a certification audit.
There are many points for a producer to consider prior to pursuing certification. Since each standard is developed independently, no two are the same and none can address every possible issue. It is important for producers to decide what is important to their farm and those further down their supply chain. Understanding the prominent certifications and new eco-labels as they are developed will be more and more necessary as an increasing number of sustainable seafood programs require their participation.
— Valerie Ethier
Valerie Ethier is a certification consultant with an MSc in Environmental Studies. This article is based on her experience in various aspects of certification through projects with Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Global Aquaculture Performance Index, and evaluation of international standards including those for shrimp, salmon and trout. She can be reached at 250-884-2064, email@example.com.