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March 17th 2002

Supermarkets 'mislead' public over seafood
By Joanna Blythman

Supermarkets and fish mongers are flouting EU law because they fear a drop in sales of farmed fish, especially salmon. From the January 1, all retailers should have been labelling their fish in one of three ways: 'caught at sea', 'caught in inland waters' or 'farmed'.

But the public image of fish farming is so dented by controversy over its use of toxic chemicals and flesh colourants, as well as its impact on the marine environment and wild species, that all major retailers are continuing to sell unlabelled fish until enforcement legislation is put in place this summer. Industry critics say they are stalling for time to think up more positive ways of presenting farmed fish.

At present, farmed fish generates substantial sales for retailers. Salmon and trout account for the lion's share, but many more fish species such as sea bass, sea bream, cod, arctic char and shellfish such as tiger prawns, can now be farmed. Once labelled as such, sales could plummet, with the now ubiquitous farmed salmon and trout being the worst affected.

Research carried out by Omnimas/Taylor Nelson Sofres for the Seafish Industry Authority has shown that consumers have 'overall negative attitudes' to fish farming so retailers are looking at ways of wording labels to make it more acceptable. Though the industry cannot get out of using the word 'farmed', it hopes to soften its impact by surrounding it with 'additional terms'.

In the report Consumer Attitudes Towards Farmed Seafood, researchers found that some 'descriptors' influence consumers 'more favourably than others'. The industry is considering using the term 'cultivated' because it 'conveys an impression of greater care taken in the process' and also looking at the potential of the phrase 'farmed on the Scottish coast'. 'Coupled with the positive emotive reaction created by the expression 'on the Scottish coast', 'farmed' conveys a much more motivating message, particularly with the English consumer. This qualifying statement has the beneficial effect of shifting the focus away from the production side of the process (for which consumers hold negative attitudes) towards the more emotive side (the Scottish coast) and all the positive imagery it evokes,' says the report.

Critics of fish farming are furious at what they consider to be an attempt to hoodwink the public. Fish campaigner Don Staniford says: 'Supermarkets are already making millions out of consumer ignorance and actively misleading the public with special promotions and 'catch of the day' adverts for farmed salmon. This latest attempt to deliberately confuse is despicable. Instead of padding out their labels with marketing spin, they should be telling consumers about the hidden extras in farmed salmon, artificial colourings antibiotics, pesticides and carcinogenic chemicals such as PCBs and dioxins and the fact that it is three times as fatty as its wild equivalent.'

The industry is also exploring the potential of organic farmed fish as a way of changing negative attitudes. The report concludes that given this sector's 'amazing year-on-year growth in the marketplace' there is 'an opportunity to pursue an organic claim for seafood' and create 'an organically farmed category'. However researchers also found that although the concept of organic farmed fish found favour with some focus groups, it met resistance from committed organic shoppers.

Philip Lymbery of Compassion in World Farming says: 'If you could corner off a piece of sea and put nice fresh water and no sewerage works, then you could say your fish was organically farmed -- but it's impossible' said one respondent. Animal welfare groups are sceptical too. 'Organic fish farming standards represent a considerable improvement on typical industry practice, but it is still a semi-intensive system.'

The prospect of oppor tunistic conversions to organic salmon farming is not welcomed by the Soil Association, the UK's leading organic certifying body. It stresses that its standards for fish farming are 'interim' and could be further restricted. There is concern within the organic movement that because organic fish standards are not as rigorous as those for other types of food, this might erode the considerable trust that the Soil Association has built up with consumers.

Director Patrick Holden says: 'The Soil Association went into fish farming after intense debate because we felt we had a public duty to come up with solutions to the problems associated with aquaculture. But I can imagine there could come a day when we can't stay in this area because we cannot reconcile vital environmental, husbandry and health principles. We might end up excluding migratory fish, for example.'

Though the new labelling legislation has been under discussion by regulators for more than two years, and the regulation making it European law was passed last October, a spokesperson for Safeway could not explain why the chain had failed to meet the January 1 deadline: 'We are aware of the legislation and in the process of changing all counter tickets and pre-pack labels. We have hundreds of stores and these things are very difficult to change overnight.'

Sainsbury's also accepts that technically, it should have changed its labels but says that it is taking advantage of 'six months of grace as turnover time for using up packaging already printed.'

The Food Standards Agency interprets matters differently. A spokesman said: 'Retailers should be adhering to this labelling regulation at the moment even though they cannot yet be prosecuted for failing to do so. Consumers should be given clear information. Honest and informative labelling is a priority.'