USA TODAY US Edition
Tracer can tell you where your seafood came from
From boat to plate, tech start-ups aim to solve mysteries of sea
In an era when consumers increasingly want to eat sustainable, socially responsible food, tracing fish from the boat to the plate is a holy grail in the seafood industry.
The problem: It’s hard to track a fish from the time it’s caught until it gets to the seafood counter. White fish fillet from a sustainably harvested, wellcared-for fishery looks remarkably like one from an over-harvested fishery operated by badly-treated workers.
Not infrequently, even the fish name on the package or the menu is wrong — fish misbranding is a problem in some overfished or high value species. Tilapia, Pacific ocean perch, yellowtail rockfish and white bass are frequently substituted for popular red snapper, according to a report by the non-profit Oceana.
Tracking fish aims to clear up these mysteries of the sea. While not yet ready for wide release, tech companies, start-ups and non-profits are building systems that do just that. They hope the benefits will get passed down to fishing operators as consumers pay more for fish they can trust.
“Right now there’s a window of opportunity for seafood fraud you can drive a truck through. Tracking makes it smaller. It’s not 100% foolproof, but it’s more porthole-sized,” said Eric Enno Tamm, general manager for traceability initiatives at Canadi- an non-profit Ecotrust Canada.
Ecotrust’s ThisFish traceability software platform, for instance, allows fishermen to attach a uniquely coded tracking tag to each fish or lot of fish as it is caught or brought ashore. That code — read via a smartphone or computer — follows the fish as it moves from the dock, the processing plant and the supermarket.
The information is transmitted to the cloud, which has brought down costs, Tamm says.
Fish and shellfish often are harvested in the open sea by ships under the flags of many nations, brought to dock in ports around the world, sometimes processed in two or more other countries and finally sold in yet another. Being able to say where a given fillet or shrimp came from often is impossible.
That knowledge, however, is key to being able to tell a buyer, a consumer or a government the fish is what it says it is and was sustainably caught by workers who were properly compensated.
But only in the past few years has technology come seriously to bear on the problem.
“People are always saying ‘You mean you can’t do that yet?’ ” said Tejas Bhatt, director of the global food traceability center at the Institute of Food Technologists in Chicago.
Which tech solutions will end up being adopted by the seafood industry is still far from clear.
“Once the standards are in place, companies will know what they need to do and implementation will be able to ramp up very quickly,” Bhatt said. For now, “it’s the wild West out there.”