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What’s Behind Your Seafood Label?

October 4, 2022

How do you know if the seafood you buy is responsibly raised?

There’s no doubt our love of seafood is growing, and it’s easy to see why. Not only are fish, shellfish and seaweed amazingly tasty, they also contribute to healthy lifestyles and immune function. Many types of seafood are rich in easily digested protein, omega-3s, vitamins and minerals to support our hearts, brains and bodies. These blue foods are also an incredibly efficient way to produce the protein needed to feed our growing world.

The great news for seafood lovers is that there are a multitude of seafood products available in stores and restaurants today – from fresh, cook-your-own fillets to value added, flavor-packed meals that make for easy weeknight dinners. It’s common to see a lot of ecolabels when shopping in the seafood aisle, but it’s important to look for a good quality third-party certification program and to know what’s behind the label.

Not all farmed seafood is the same and neither are certifications. The hard part is determining what’s best to add to your plate.

As we celebrate National Seafood Month and the important role aquatic foods play in our lives, we know you have questions about what aquaculture is, how it can contribute to a responsible food supply and what it means to purchase and prepare certified seafood products.

We’re excited to share answers with help from experts Kathrin Steinberg and Sophie Ryan. Steinberg leads the research team and is part of the standards and science department here at Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC), while Ryan is CEO of the Global Salmon Initiative (GSI). Both focus on bringing quality and integrity to your seafood supply.

What is aquaculture?

Aquaculture is the practice of farming seafood. It’s like agriculture, but done with fish, shellfish and seaweed. Farmers who practice aquaculture breed and harvest plants and animals in water – freshwater or salt water – recreating natural cycles on the farm.

Aquaculture also happens to be the world’s fastest growing food-producing sector and already plays a crucial role in helping to feed our planet as populations grows. From the 1960s to 2020, consumption of aquatic food per capita grew from an average of 9.0 kg to 20.2 kg. Today, aquaculture produces over 50% of the seafood we eat in the United States and worldwide.

UK Jersey Oyster Farmer

What is responsible aquaculture?

The bigger the aquaculture industry becomes, the more impacts it can have. That’s why it’s important to look for seafood that is certified as responsibly raised when shopping. When done responsibly, the benefits of aquaculture go beyond a strong food supply.

Just as with any farming – from chicken to cattle to corn – many considerations must be made when it comes to care of the environment and surrounding habitats, animal feed and welfare, chemical use, affects on surrounding communities, and so much more. ASC certification ensures the strictest standards are being followed on the seafood farms and also throughout the entire supply chain to the store.

Habitat restoration on a certified farm
Mangrove restoration taking place on an ASC-certified farm

Responsible aquaculture can help rebuild populations of threatened and endangered species, restore habitats and boost wild stocks of aquatic species. You can be sure your seafood was raised responsibly when it bears the sea green label.

“Standards like ASC’s focus on environmental and social issues to ensure the current growth is responsible,” says ASC’s Kathrin Steinberg. “It’s our mission to help the industry play its crucial part in feeding the population, while respecting the planet and its people. We also want to help minimize the industry’s impact on climate change and protect fish welfare.”

What’s the difference between wild and farmed seafood? Is one better?

Wild-caught seafood come from wild habitats i.e., lakes, oceans, rivers, and typically consume a diet found in that environment.

In aquaculture, farmed seafood can also be raised in lakes, oceans, rivers and even on land, but as with all farmed animals, they are cared for in a more controlled way. Many species of seafood thrive on farms, especially when raised with care in a responsible manner. Their diets vary depending on the type of fish being farmed, location and other factors, but consist of a special blend of feed formulated by nutritionists, delivered in specific amounts needed for optimal growth and nutrition.

“Salmon feed is typically comprised of plant-based ingredients, fish-based ingredients (including fishmeal, fish oil and fish protein), as well as vitamins, minerals, amino acids and astaxanthin, an antioxidant. This antioxidant supports fish immune health and gives salmon its iconic “salmon” hue. This diet also replicates wild salmon’s omnivorous diet,” offers Sophie Ryan of GSI.

“One of the biggest evolutions in salmon feed is a shift from using only fish-based ingredients to also using plant-based ingredients, like algae or canola oils. This is a positive – and much-needed – development because it means we can supplement the use of wild fish stocks and lower farmed salmon feed’s natural resource use, all while supporting farmed salmon health, welfare and nutritional benefits.”

ASC’s new Feed Standard ensures that 100% of ingredients used in feeding farmed seafood will be sustainably sourced.

Sustainable salmon feed in Chile

So, while there’s a world of difference in their habitats, the fact is both wild and farmed seafood can yield quality products when managed responsibly and sustainably. With 33% of wild fish stocks having already reached their biological limit due to overfishing, these methods must coexist to meet global demand.

Instead of choosing between wild or farmed, the better answer is to look for certified seafood with a label you can trust – ASC sea green for farmed seafood and the MSC blue fish label for wild-caught. Striking a balance between two good options means more variety for your plate and more ways to shop responsibly.

What makes ASC certification stand out?

ASC is the only aquaculture certification program that can verify your farmed seafood is what it claims to be, where it came from, how it was raised and how it got to you. This is because ASC standards are the strictest and most responsible in the world. For example, some certifiers don’t include farms in their chain of custody tracking or don’t make unannounced inspections at farms. ASC does this and much more through independent, third-party auditors.

ASC is also implementing new technologies and innovations to ensure better traceability of seafood, including exciting advancements like Trace Element Fingerprinting (TEF), which can verify seafood origin back to the farm with more than 95% accuracy.

Chilean salmon farm

All of this attention to detail helps protect the quality and safety of the seafood that ultimately reaches your grocery store shelves. It also preserves aquatic organisms in the environment, while protecting farm workers, wildlife and surrounding neighborhoods.

The result is quality products, proud farmers and strong communities.

“What I’ve found most interesting to see is that the certification has a positive impact on the fish and shrimp consumption in the area, derived from improved pond management and healthy consumption of the farmed and other aquatic-dwelling species in the local community. On top of that, the farmers are usually so proud of what they have achieved,” says Steinberg who has personally observed many farm audits.

What does the sea green ASC label mean?

Higher quality, greater transparency, safer products and, ultimately, peace of mind knowing that what you’re eating has a positive impact on people and our planet.

“I am always happy to see the ASC label in a store because it symbolizes how responsible aquaculture can play a major role in supplying food and social benefits for all of us, while minimizing negative impacts on the environment,” says Steinberg.

“Responsibly farmed salmon is a safe and healthy choice,” adds Ryan. “Farmed salmon is recommended as a “best choice” seafood by the Food & Drug Administration of the United States (FDA) because it’s low in mercury, but high in health benefits. What’s more: farm-raised salmon has just as much or more of the omega-3 fatty acids than wild-caught. Shopping with the ASC label in mind is an easy way to know you’re getting all of these benefits from fish raised in the most responsible way.”

How can you make a difference?

Look for the sea green ASC label in stores and at restaurants. If you don’t see it – ask for it! Cook with ASC or MSC-certified seafood whenever possible. There are delicious recipes for everything from salmon and shrimp to tilapia and kanpachi. Try them all during National Seafood Month and in the following months to come!

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