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Labeling Laws Problem or Opportunity

The following column applies to all seafood and not just shellfish that I usually focus on.

There has been a lot of discussion of late on the new US laws, regarding the labeling of seafood. There have been many debates, comments, statements, news articles, and editorials on the value of this initiative and weather it will have a positive or negative impact on the industry.

As an observer and with the level of participation I have in this industry I am many times in a unique position to see issues that many only see one side of. From this perspective I gain new references that when combined with those I have, the overall understanding of solutions as wells as pro's and con's are much clearer.

So let's look at labeling and what it means to the seafood industry. Firstly labeling has been in place with food stuffs and other consumer items at the retail level for some time. In essence it was developed over time as a way to address consumer information needs that would allow them to making a buying decision on products at the point of purchase.

I have written about this before and it is important that you think about the following;

1/ At the supermarket check out counter, 75% of what is in the shopping basket the consumer did not know they were going to buy before entering the store.

2/ People go to food stores not to purchase food but to buy packages with food inside them.

3/ At 4:30 in the afternoon most households do not know what they will have for dinner yet.

When you understand these statements it becomes very obvious that value of labeling especially in the seafood business at the retail level where most retailers have very poor performance on a per sq. ft. bases.

As well consumers are demanding to know more about what they are consuming, nutritional values, where it is from, best buy dates etc. With the amount of information that is available to consumers today by TV newspaper internet etc. it is easy to see why they have concerns of what they are eating and where it is from as in general bad news especially about food travels very fast. Look at what happened to the beef industry consumption, when mad cow disease was in the press.

So why is it that there are so many opponents to labeling within the seafood sector, they have missed many chances over the years, to build customer loyalty however with the exception of large well organized processors that understand the buying habits of consumers little has changed.

Many are citing the cost factor of doing this and have pegged the industry cost to be in the billions of dollars. The reality however is that it will cost pennies per serving which can easily be passed on to the consumer with out much of any complaints as it is a service for which they have asked for.

There are many who may be pointing fingers at the catfish farmers for starting this issue of labeling within seafood because of the price and market pressure of less expensive imports of "basa" from Vietnam, that was being passed off as catfish.

In there efforts to address the issues, it was brought forward the need to have product identification so that consumers would know what they were getting was grown in North America fresh catfish. It is my belief that the direction that product identification was taking had been forming long before this issue however it did bring it to the forefront of the industry.

The catfish farmers were right in the initiative however maybe for the wrong reasons, they certainly deserved to protect the industry they had created. All you have to do is look at the efforts of the Catfish Marketing Institute and you begin to realize how much effort they had put into creating the industry. Converting the negative image catfish had in the consumer eyes and then to ramp up production to consistently deliver a quality, product was no easy task.

What they had stumbled into however, was a change that is happening globally especially with fresh food products at the retail level. This change is driven by consumer demands and their need to know what they are consuming and where it is coming from. The catfish industry were rewarded by the increased new acceptance and consumption of their product which was now being threatened.

Their story demonstrates the value of labeling for the farmed seafood sector, as with the control that the industry has on quality, quantity, delivery times and consistent supply it is an opportunity to get the message out to the people that are asking for it.

In early November I attended the Los Angeles Seafood show, to show case our point of sale automated seafood packaging system that addresses the issue and provides product labeling information at the pick up point.

When we studied this market sector some time ago we found out that less and less information was available at the seafood counter and that the change in retail distribution from smaller specialty retailers to big box and hypermarket outlets was allowing consumers more choice than ever for their shopping pleasure.

Weather it was shellfish on ice, crustaceans, whole fish, steaks, roast or fillets nothing was easy for the consumer by themselves to purchase. As a matter of fact in cases where advertising or generic information was available it was generally lost at the pick up point because there was little or no effort to identify the product itself with labeling initiatives.

Everything seemed exactly opposite with seafood to where the retail sector was going, it was almost as if the seafood industry was stuck in a time warp that was set up to resist and defy change.

Like the Boston Seafood Show, the LA show has a number of seminars with topics that are industry related. I was invited to present on the market research we had been doing as well as to explain to seafood buyers the new technologies that are used in growing shellfish including what is being done with larvae, intensive nurseries, advanced grow out systems, processing, secondary processing, packaging, quality control, safety issues, attached information and branding.

Few in the audience had been exposed to this information and were very surprised at what was now available to them, these were seafood industry people that know their end of the business very well.

Towards the end of my presentation I had individuals fill out a questioner on what they had learned and what they could do with it. The second last question was " Would you or your company be willing to put effort into creating new customers that would buy shellfish more often at a premium price if quality, safety and branding strategies were offered to you?" All answered yes!

The last question was " If the product were to cost up to 20% more would your answer be the same?" All answered yes!

This from people that's jobs are to buy as low as they can, amazing what information will do.

I talked with one of the participants after and he admitted that he would not had have answered yes to the questions had he not found out what shellfish growers can now provide, it was his understanding that he could only sell what was offered to him as bulk commodity. Now that he understood he easily started to think of developing new customers now that he knew what and how it was available.

So what have we learned, well for some probably little however for those that produce farmed raised, quality, safe seafood and are proud of it here is your chance to allow a rule to work in your favor by taking advantage of a labeling law that will allow you to get the valuable branded information about your product out to the consumer at their level. Set an objective and a plan to reach, the answers are there you just have to recognize them.

Fukui North America

110-B Bonnechere St.W.
Eganville, Ontario K0J 1T0

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Email: kate@fukuina.com or don@bishopaquatic.com

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