© Digital Vision/Getty Images
© Digital Vision/Getty Images

What can a tilapia teach about traceability in supply chains?

Technology is improving the ability to track even the most complex businesses, so you know how the catch of the day made its way from the water to your plate.

Traceability is a core concern for all businesses. Now, in the face of a global crisis, supply chains are encountering heightened pressure just to maintain normal services, as well as to maximise efficiency and protect against loss and counterfeiting. Data management technologies provide a degree of protection, but how far can this go for highly complex supply chains, such as that of the fishing industry?

With the fishing industry accounting for 0.1% of the UK’s gross domestic product, it’s a tiny part of the national economy, but one that is passionately defended for its economic and cultural contribution to coastal communities. In many other parts of the world, fishing accounts for a higher percentage – in Vietnam, for example, it is a rapidly growing key economic sector, contributing up to 3.5% of national GDP and 24% of Vietnam’s agricultural GDP, according to the Vietnam Fisheries Society (Vinafis).

Of course, unlike other food commodities such as wheat or meat, fish has the tricky habit of swimming across national borders, often making it the subject of international dispute and an object of concern around provenance: retailers and consumers are now demanding a greater level of transparency. With long and complex supply chains, the issue of track-and-traceability has become a hot topic, with a raft of firms such as Vericatch, based in California’s Monterey Bay, specialising in electronic monitoring tools. The company facilitates transparency in the fishing industry supply chain through its data collection, management and reporting tools such as FisheriesApp.

It works with fishermen to find out what they’re catching, where they’re catching it and how to document it so there is “real source-level information” that follows the product.

“There are horror stories about people in the supply chain having to ‘create’ origin information,” says Julian Hawkins, CEO of Vericatch. “Seafood gets re-boxed all the time because boxes get degraded during transit. If you don’t have the original packaging, you can’t necessarily say where it came from. Or perhaps a supplier wants to remove information to stop their customer going around them, so there are commercial pressures as to why things might get repackaged,” he explains.

One solution, he says, is for fish-processing companies to use customer-facing packaging so the product is being shipped in the packaging that will end up on the supermarket shelf. While this may be straightforward for farmed fish supply chains, it becomes problematic where wild fish is caught in the open seas and supply chains can be more convoluted. Fish can often be ‘transshipped’ – moved from the supertrawler that caught it (which will remain at sea for many months) – onto cargo ships that will take the product into port where it may be auctioned to a processor, who may then contract out some of the filleting work.

According to Hawkins, large fish-processing companies often re-export their product out of Europe or North America into places like China to access low-cost labour to do some of the jobs like filleting. Once returned, the fish may then be sold to an exporter which would sell it to the major markets before it gets packaged for purchase by consumers or the restaurant trade. “There’s a lot of potential to lose track of where this was caught. And by which boat, under which licence? And all the time the product is degrading,” he says.

Progress of traceability tech

With so many steps in the supply chain, reliable and affordable seafood traceability has become a prerequisite for companies seeking to remain competitive. Whether for meeting CSR policies or addressing core operational issues such as supply chain visibility and risk management, there is a daily need for rapid access to verifiable information about product origins across the sector.

New digital technologies have made traceability more possible and affordable than ever, with an array of government-funded and private-market data-driven electronic monitoring systems designed to contribute to global seafood traceability. And in an industry where lack of visibility can help hide issues such as illegal or forced labour at sea; product adulteration and fraud; chemical misuse or overuse and environmental damage, “transparency is no longer a nice-to-have”, explains David Schorr, senior manager, Transparent Seas Project, WWF, who has been part of the Global Dialogue on Seafood Traceability (GDST) since its inception in April 2017.

According to Schorr, joined-up, effective and widespread traceability has hitherto faced obstacles, such as inconsistent demands for information coming from governments, NGOs, retailers or other downstream companies, which leads to confusion, higher compliance costs, and lower motivation among producers. This is exacerbated by continued reliance on paper-based (non-digital) information management systems by many in the seafood industry, especially among smaller producers and processors; and the rapid proliferation of different digital technologies and traceability systems, often using incompatible approaches that reduce business flexibility, isolate data in silos, or even result in data being held by third-party solution providers. All of which impedes information flow, while causing rigidity in business relations and raising barriers to onboarding new suppliers and customers.

“It all adds to the pressure in a complex multinational supply chain,” says Schorr. “And until the launch of GDST, there were no agreed standards for how traceability should be conducted, leading to significant disadvantages for businesses.”

To solve these problems, the WWF and Institute of Food Technologists (Global Food Traceability Center) created the GDST – and have spent the past three years working with the global fishing community and food retailers to come up with new industry-led standards that will enable interoperability and increased verifiability for all seafood traceability systems. The GDST’s Standards and Guidelines for Interoperable Seafood Traceability Systems, ‘GDST 1.0’, were officially launched on 16 March 2020, and have two main parts.

Firstly, the introduction of standards identifying the minimum key data elements (KDEs) that need to be documented within GDST-compliant supply chains. And secondly, the introduction of standards governing the technical formats for sharing data among interoperable traceability systems.

The guidelines are based on barcode standards used by retailers of other foods, where codes carry information that those in the supply chain can use to track the source and path of their goods. The key, says Schorr is that the guidelines should help create a vendor-neutral platform which allows technicians to design computer systems that can talk to one another. The new standards will also mean existing systems can be modified to meet the interoperability standards.

While sensitive commercial information need not be shared, the commonality of reference to basic facts, (or KDEs), such as the origin of the catch, vessel data, transhipment, landing, processing, certifications and licences will lead to reliable, efficient, and affordable traceability which is necessary for a responsible seafood industry.

Today, a growing number of companies involved in seafood are working hard to obtain the information they need to manage their supply chains and to ensure their products originate with legal and responsible production practices, says Schorr. “Any company in the seafood supply chain knows they’re going to have to continue making investments in traceability going forward, for years.

“What this will do is assure them that investments they make will not be overtaken by events. If they adopt these standards, they’re making investments in a system that can talk to other systems, so there’s a huge benefit, even if there are costs of adjustment in the short term,” he said.

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