Enhancing Seafood Traceability
Global Food Traceability Center
August 22, 2014
Authors: Brian Sterling1
Seafood is a dominant sector in the global food industry and remains one of the fastest
growing protein sources consumed world-wide. The seafood industry has a history of food
safety and environmental practices that has recently raised concerns from consumers,
regulatory agencies, and non-government organizations. This industry is undergoing significant
transition due to changing global demographics (shift in demand from developed to
developing nations), economic factors (explosive growth of aquaculture), as well as
environmental issues (environmental degradation and illegal, unregulated, unreported
Food corporations recognize that commercial transparency and traceability are critical to
brand enhancement, risk mitigation, food safety, and consumer confidence. Yet, global trade
and complex supply chains make it difficult to consistently identify the origin and history of
many seafood products. Seafood often moves very long distances, in and out of multiple
ports, and changes hands among various brokers, wholesalers, processors, and retailers before
reaching the consumer (Pramod and others 2014; Waage and Kraft 2013).
Efforts to reducing supply chain risks and global competition to source seafood that is not
from illegal, unreported, and underreported (IUU) sources are rapidly increasing the need for
processors, distributors, and retailers of seafood to know and influence their product sources.
At the same time, policymakers are recognizing that “bait to plate” seafood traceability is
key to achieving sustainable fisheries, combating illegal fishing, and ensuring food security.
From both commercial and public policy perspectives, improved seafood traceability has
become a top priority. Currently, only a fraction of wild-caught fish products can be
sufficiently traced to meet these growing demands for transparency.
The costs and benefits of traceability are of significant interest for smaller operations, many
of which do not possess the resources required to purchase and implement a full traceability
system (Greene 2010). For this reason, simple and effective business case tools are needed
to help these smaller firms develop their own payback calculations.
The Global Food Traceability Center (GFTC) has undertaken a project to examine the
importance and impact of traceability as a means for the seafood industry to more effectively
manage the dramatically changing nature of its business. The purpose of this briefing is
provide insight into the issues affecting the performance of the seafood industry and offer
GFTC’s perspective on the utility of traceability in reducing waste, enhancing consumer trust,
and increasing business efficiencies.
In the past decade, the most significant trend affecting the seafood industry has been the
rapid rise in aquaculture. Global aquaculture production increased from 40 million tonnes
(MT) in 2000 to almost 90 MT in 2012 (FAO 2013). During the same period, wild-capture
fisheries production (both inland and marine) slowly rose from about 81 MT to approximately
90 MT per year. Aquaculture now accounts for 50% of the seafood produced globally.
Capture fisheries production is highly consolidated. China was the largest producer of fish and
seafood from capture fisheries from 2000-2012, contributing 18% of total catch (FAO 2013).
The 10 countries which produce the greatest amount of seafood represented 59% of total
capture fisheries production in 2012.
Consumption of fish and seafood has increased 17% in the past decade, rising from an average
global consumption per capita of 15.8 kg in 2000 (round weight equivalent), to 18.5 kg in 2009
(FAO 2013). Consumption of fish and seafood has increased in all areas of the world, with
some individual country exceptions. Asia, Europe, North America, and Oceania are relatively
high consumers of fish and seafood, with an average consumption in 2009 of 20.6 kg/capita,
21.9 kg/capita, 24 kg/capita, and 26 kg/capita, respectively (FAO 2013). Africa (9.5
kg/capita) and South America (9.7 kg/capita) are relatively low consumers of fish and
The total global value of imported and exported seafood products doubled during 2000-2011,
from approximately $60 billion to more than $120 billion. A slight decrease in seafood trade
was observed in 2008-2009, which reflected the global economic crisis; however, there has
been subsequent recovery.
China led the world in export value of fish and seafood in 2011, with approximately 13% of
the total global share, valued at $17.2 billion. The top 10 exporting countries accounted for
52% of the total global value.
Frozen shrimp and prawns were the top export in 2011, valued at $9.2 billion. Frozen fish
fillets ($5.1 billion), fresh or chilled Atlantic salmon ($4.8 billion) and canned tuna ($2.5
billion) were important exports in terms of value. A key non-human consumption export was
fishmeal, prepared from either whole fish or fish parts, representing a value in 2011 of almost
The retail sector is exerting more influence in the global seafood market by increasingly
committing to responsible sourcing practices. Sustainability concerns have been increasing
throughout the supply chain as the impact of industry watchdog lists (such as Greenpeace’s
CATO report; Mitchell 2014) and third party certifications have become more prevalent. For
example, a survey on the European seafood market indicated that 95% of consumer
respondents wanted more information on how to make sustainable seafood choices (Seafood
Choices Alliance 2007). This focus on sustainable sourcing is also a key development in the
European and North American markets (Seafood Choices Alliance 2008).
DRIVERS AFFECTING SEAFOOD CONSUMPTION/PURCHASING
Due to over-fishing, fish stocks are being depleted while global fish catches are trending
upwards (FAO 2013; Kearney 2010). White fish, oily fish, and invertebrates are the most
commonly consumed seafood. Fish are an important source of good quality protein, relatively
low in fats and may also be a good source of iodine.
Seafood consumption, measured as grams per capita per day, has increased since the early
1960’s, specifically for invertebrates and freshwater fishes (Kearney 2010). The greatest
increases in seafood consumption have occurred in Oceania and Asia, especially China, where
consumption increased from approximately 11 g per capita per day in 1963 to 69 g per capita
per day in 2003 (Kearney, 2010). Compared to industrial countries, developing nations have
also seen higher increases in seafood consumption (Kearney 2010).
The main drivers of consumer behaviour relating to the purchasing and consumption of
Health properties. Seafood is widely perceived as a healthy and nutritious product and
is often deemed healthier than other forms of protein (e.g., red-meat).
Freshness. Seafood freshness is a significant factor in consumer purchasing; however,
some consumers admit they cannot assess product freshness.
Country of origin. This identifier acts as a surrogate for branding and may be
perceived as an indicator of freshness.
Dietary variety. Some consumers are attracted to seafood products as a means of
varying their diets.
Price. Seafood products are widely perceived as relatively expensive, which is a
significant deterrent to purchasing/consuming seafood.
Inconvenience. Seafood products are widely perceived as complex to prepare.
Consumers may be deterred by the prevalence of bones and the smell/touch when
Consumer knowledge. Uncertainty about whether the product will meet expectations,
and lack of confidence in choosing/preparing/enjoying unfamiliar species may
influence purchasing and consumption behavior.
Unpopularity with households. Social deterrents occur when some individuals, such as
children and teenagers, within the household do not like fish.
Food safety. Concerns over possible contaminants may deter at-risk groups, primarily
children and pregnant women.
Ecological sustainability - Wild versus farmed. Farmed fish are often seen as lower
quality in the eyes of the consumer, although many cannot distinguish wild from
farmed fish by taste.
Satiation. Some consumers are deterred by the expectation that seafood is not as
satisfying as meat.
Trust in retailer. There is growing consumer scepticism about the information that
retailers provide about seafood products.
WHAT IS TRACEABILITY?
A useful definition of traceability is proposed by Olsen and Borit (2012) in their paper “How to
Define Traceability.” In their view, traceability is the ability to access any or all
information relating to that which is under consideration, throughout its entire life
cycle, by means of recorded identifications. This is the definition that the Global Food
Traceability Center uses for its purposes.
The risk of food safety incidents, zoonotic disease outbreaks, or the presence of contaminants
can threaten both the quality and safety of food products. The food industry has addressed
the management of food hygiene, safety, and quality through the introduction of
management systems such as Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) and the
International Organization for Standardization’s ISO9001. However, consumer attitudes have
been negatively impacted by issues such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and high
profile incidents of food adulteration and foodborne illness. The commercial food industry has
been forced to evolve to regain consumer trust; traceability is seen as an important tool in
For these reasons, the primary aim of traceability in food supply chains has been to regain or
strengthen consumer trust by preventing or restricting the spread of food safety incidents
(Pang and others 2012). Traceability systems were originally designed as auditing processes to
allow a food product to be traced back to its production facilities in the event of a health and
safety incident. In contrast to systems such as HACCP, which are designed to prevent
problems from occurring in the first place, or quality assurance testing protocols which are
designed to detect problems in products before they reach consumers, traceability systems
are typically designed to work retrospectively. This does not mean however that traceability
does not have prospective capabilities.
To be an effective tool, traceability needs to be viewed from this prospective stance.
Traceability systems can benefit businesses and entire sectors from a production, marketing,
and supply chain management perspective. The quantitative benefits associated with
traceability include protection of public health, improved trade, strengthened sustainability
practices, reduced recall scope, increased consumer trust, and quality assurance and supply
chain efficiencies (McEntire and Bhatt 2012).
It is important to note that the existence of a traceability system itself does not guarantee a
product is traceable throughout an entire food chain. Thus, another two important
characteristics are that disparate systems used to manage information at the individual
business level are interoperable and able to comply with open standards of the traceability
system, and that the data concerning the product under consideration can be verified.
Since traceability systems may not be fully implemented throughout entire supply chains, it is
the system itself and the rigor with which it is applied that ultimately determine product
traceability (Clarke 2009). Effective food traceability is an outcome of a disciplined,
professionally managed approach to data gathering, retention, analysis, and collaboration,
performed simultaneously at all points along the value chain. Effective food traceability
allows the creation of financially and environmentally sustainable food businesses and value
chains, by providing the opportunity to create and retain a unique competitive advantage
(Gooch and Sterling 2013).
There are two main categories of traceability systems: internal and external. Internal
traceability systems allow companies to trace what is happening within their own operations,
and are common in the food industry. External (or value chain) traceability systems are more
rare, and require more complex information-sharing systems that allow one to trace what
happens to a product through all parts of the supply chain or a part of the supply chain
outside of one business entity (Magera and Beaton 2009).
Van Dorp (2002) describes a traceability system from the perspective of information
management, including three layers: item coding (the physical layer), information
architecture (information layer), and planning and control (the control layer).
Traceability systems vary from simple, paper-based records to complex electronic data
systems which can include software, barcodes, handheld readers/scanners, and radio
frequency identification (RFID) tags. Regardless of the way data are collected, stored, and
shared, traceability is only effective when the information transmitted along the chain is
reliable and standardized (McEntire and others 2010; Nga 2010).
According to Buchanan and others (2012), the main elements of traceability include:
Definition of traceable entities. External traceable entities may include trade units
(items), logistics units (pallets), or shipments. Internal traceable entities may include
batches (lots). Uniform definitions are key.
Unique identification of traceable entities. Examples include GS1 coding, RFID
tracking, or labels that can be scanned by a machine or read by a human. Uniqueness
is key, so that there is no ambiguity about which specific product entity is being
Key data elements (KDE). Attributes that are recorded and stored; relevant and
accurate information about the product or entity.
Critical tracking events (CTE). The essential steps in the supply chain where data
(KDEs) need to be collected and stored.
Effective traceability in a food value chain is the ability to identify the origin of the product
and sources of input materials, as well as the ability to conduct backward and forward
tracking using recorded information to determine the specific location and life history of the
product. For this to happen, a traceability system must have the following properties (Olsen
and Borit 2012):
Provide access to all properties of a food product, not only those that can be verified
Provide access to the properties of a food product or ingredient in all its forms, in all
the links in the supply chain, not only at the product batch level.
Facilitate traceability both backwards and forwards.
Be based on systematic recordings of these properties.
In practice, a unit identification system or numbering scheme must be present; without it,
the goals of a traceability system cannot be achieved.
DRIVERS OF SEAFOOD TRACEABILITY
The identification and determination of origin and history of seafood products are made more
difficult by globalization of trade and the lack of international information standards
(Thompson and others 2005). These challenges raise concerns of retail and food service
stakeholders and consumers about the safety of their seafood supplies. Whether the impact of
traceability on the seafood industry is perceived as positive or negative will depend on the
potential market benefits, and the design, management, and marketing of traceability
concepts (Thompson and others 2005).
The destination market for many seafood products plays an important role in causing
businesses and companies to adopt traceability. The market influence on traceability can be
tied to regulatory requirements specific for the exportation of products to market
destinations, health and safety regulations, consumer demand for various “certified”
products, and product differentiation. Seafood traceability systems have been implemented
for the following reasons (Thompson and others 2005; Hanner and others 2011):
Consumer Attitudes. Concerns over declining fish populations and growing pressure
from consumers to produce sustainable food has increased the number of consumers
interested in third party certifications (eco-labels, such as “sustainable” or “organic”
seafood products). A segment of the market is also demanding industry response to
concerns about overfishing and environmental degradation.
Production/Management Tool. Many seafood businesses and sectors, such as the
aquaculture sector, rely on traceability to improve production and management
practices in order to tie production to market demand. For these firms, ‘payoff’ is the
key driver – whether related to increased revenue or decreased costs.
Regulatory requirements. Traceability systems allow seafood companies to meet
general production and export regulatory requirements, as well as species-specific
Market requirements. Some high volume buyers of seafood apply rigorous traceability
standards to their enterprises and demand the same standards of their suppliers.
Illegal Fishing. Illegal, unreported, and underreported (IUU) fishing is a significant
global problem jeopardizing ecosystems, food security, and livelihoods. Vessels
classified as participating in IUU fishing are designated as such because they regularly
ignore domestic and international fishing laws, fish in areas closed or restricted to
commercial fishing, target endangered and at-risk species, and use illegal gear.
Mislabelled Products. The intentional mislabelling of seafood with a product of lesser
value constitutes a persistent form of fraud. Reasons for substitution include high
demand with limited supply, high profit incentive, an increase in international trade of
processed foods, and lack of regulatory enforcement.
COSTS & BENEFITS OF EFFECTIVE TRACEABILITY
The research is divided when it comes to determining what is the greatest benefit attributed
to improved traceability practices. Some argue that the benefits to safety and public health
are deemed to be the most substantial. Others argue that by applying traceability to value
chain management, additional business or industry level benefits are more significant.
These business benefits include (Nga 2010; Sparling and others 2011; McEntire and Bhatt
Recall scope. Reducing the number of products implicated or recalled through
improved product tracing practices and more precise data.
Trade. Increasing access to markets and new customers; increasing cross-border
collaboration, visibility, and accountability from food imports and exports.
Value capture. Marketing/branding advantages by being able to trace products to a
particular source (e.g., making claims about organic, wild-caught). Controlling
inventory and supply chain management to increase cash flow.
Sustainability. More reliable product tracing to validate sustainability claims.
Quality assurance. Accelerating and strengthening accountability, quality
management, and accurate order fulfillment.
Continual improvement. Increasing the payback from technology, electronic
communication, and operational best practices.
Gooch and Sterling (2013) reported that the following overall benefits should be considered
the goals of a well-designed traceability system:
Market Benefits. Traceability is often a requirement in regulated environments such as
food and seafood.
Quality and Safety Management. Traceability does not confirm food safety but an
effective traceability system strengthens food safety management capabilities.
Reduced Cost of Production. When traceability is perceived as an outcome of having
effective information and communication systems, the data can be used to reduce
costs while often simultaneously increasing revenue.
Product Recall. Effective traceability systems help companies overcome a crisis
promptly and effectively, narrow the scale of a recall, and can help restore market
The costs and benefits of traceability are particularly of interest for smaller operations, many
of whom do not possess the resources required to purchase and implement a full traceability
system (Greene 2010). While larger operations may see the cost of implementing traceability
systems as investment in their future, smaller operations may view it as a financial liability.
For this reason, simple and effective business case tools are needed to help smaller firms
develop their own payback calculations.
A key point that many businesses miss when assessing the costs for traceability is that they
already have in place many of the processes, systems, and practices necessary for traceability
for food safety and production efficiencies. The existing information need only be accessed
and used differently to support traceability (Gooch and Sterling, 2013).
ROLE OF TRACEABILITY TECHNOLOGY
Historically, the aim of traceability in food supply chains has been to prevent or restrict the
spread of food safety incidents (Pang and others 2012). As such, traceability is usually part of
a reactive process and has not been used as much to evaluate opportunities in real-time, nor
to identify and manage business issues. Innovative technologies can be used to make
traceability faster, more-cost effective, and more reliable; and the data captured can be
proactively used for commercial advantage (Huang and Yang 2009; Gooch and Sterling 2013).
Since the 1950s, the physical capacity for catching, processing, and moving seafood across the
globe has dramatically risen. However, these physical innovations have not been matched by
the use of digital information management or verification practices. Most of the processes in
the international seafood industry, including those related to traceability, continue to be
manual, paper-based tools (FutureofFish.org 2014).
The recognition that modern information technology and digital records can add value for the
customer, while simultaneously reducing the costs of producing a product or service, has
revolutionized the role of information management in organizations (Porter and Millar 1985).
Today, information drives competitive advantage.
In the seafood industry, however, there is a lack of uniform requirements or standards for
information gathering and sharing that are needed for traceability. This gap is significant and
inhibits interoperability of technology systems along the value chain, and, thus, increases
business risks and costs when choosing and adopting traceability and information systems.
Lack of interoperability also lessens businesses’ ability to partner with other members of the
value chain to increase their competitiveness, reduce waste, implement sustainable business
practices, and innovate in relation to market demands. In other words, lack of
interoperability regarding seafood traceability reduces business profitability and industry
And finally, lack of verification procedures that integrate with monitoring of food authenticity
means that we still may be able to track and trace a product through the chain and yet still
not have certainty that the product is what the labelling and packaging claims.
In the USA, the Gulf Seafood Trace (GST) program is an excellent example of an
interoperable, multifaceted seafood traceability system. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill of
2010 in the Gulf of Mexico increased the need for fishing companies in the area to prove the
safety of their products. In response to this environmental disaster, 1000 individual seafood
businesses voluntarily interact with GST in an effort to increase the market for Gulf seafood.
In this program, electronic traceability is critical for improving the effectiveness of business
processes, and is the only solution to the inefficiencies that result from the antiquated paper-
based systems most often used to track and trace products (Miller 2014).
RESEARCH GAPS AND FUTURE DIRECTIONS
The seafood industry is global and complex in nature, and the industry data that are available
have many gaps. Primarily, international standard practices for collecting/sharing traceability
information do not exist for the seafood sector (Borit and Olsen 2012). The majority of the
North American industry maintains internal traceability and the “one up / one down” external
traceability model. Legislation in the European Union is more stringent, requiring
certifications for seafood imported into the EU in an attempt to restrict IUU fishing practices.
Although China is the major player in seafood processing, there is a lack of publically
available and transparent data. Furthermore, fish exported to China can be re-exported after
processing as “Product of China,” regardless of its original source (Roheim 2008). Traceability
data for other regions, such as Japan, specific EU nations, Southeast Asia, and developing
countries is lacking.
There is a lack of business case studies regarding traceability in the seafood sector and a lack
of a total system approach. The few examples of business case studies are often limited to a
single species or sector; as a result, the findings may not be easily transferable to other
situations (Donnelley and Olsen 2012). Further, investigations generally focus on how
information collected through improved traceability systems improves operations and does
not extend to how the information or technology systems can benefit public health during
trace back investigations. For example, the speed with which records can be accessed and
provided to regulatory agencies is seldom mentioned (McEntire and Bhatt, 2012). This is
problematic since the primary drivers for the implementation of traceability systems have
been from the public safety sector, rather than from a business point of view (Pang and
An interesting area of further study would be a meta-analysis of current published traceability
systems and case studies from the seafood industry which would further inform the
appropriateness of these traceability systems and their applicability in real-world settings and
support the requirements for verification of authenticity.
In addition, there is a need to investigate what and how information can be used outside the
direct setting of the fishing vessel, aquaculture farm, or supply chain.
Challenges for the seafood industry such as IUU fishing and seafood fraud will continue unless
innovative, digital data solutions such as electronic traceability are pioneered and
implemented. The importance of securely sharing product information, making informed
decisions, and creating actionable data to manage risk throughout the supply chain will only
increase during the coming years as companies, consumers, NGOs, regulators, and
government agencies demand more transparency surrounding seafood products. These data
demands cannot be met in an environment where information is shared and understood with
manual, paper-based systems.
A new global framework of practices, technology, and standardized requirements is needed to
achieve an interoperable seafood traceability system. Although many of the tools and
practices for seafood traceability are known, approaches remain underdeveloped and
fractured across geographies, jurisdictions, and market sectors. National governments are
reacting to consumer pressures to implement traceability requirements, and there is a high
risk that this will cause an uncoordinated global model that industry will struggle to
implement. There is an urgent need for public and private seafood stakeholders to
collaborate and develop a consensus on how to design, plan, test, and implement a global
seafood traceability system.
Work must continue to help businesses quantify the costs and benefits of traceability
investments. Currently, the main obstacles for adoption of traceability in seafood chains are
cultural and organizational. With the history of the seafood industry and the nature of the
companies of which it is made, corporate leadership does not have a robust understanding of
how traceability can streamline their internal processes and financial performance, and
therefore cannot quantify the benefits of traceability. Services and tools must be made
available to assist these organizations with business justification for investment in
We recommend an approach in which seafood industry and government stakeholders
collaborate to eliminate the causes and incentives that drive ‘bad’ behavior and to find ways
to positively reinforce ‘good’ behavior. In our work, we have seen that active engagement
and cooperation are best practices for addressing tough problems like IUU fishing and seafood
In conclusion, the resources, tools, and technology required for the implementation of
traceability in seafood do exist. It is clear that there are compelling reasons for industry and
governments to respond to mounting pressures to implement traceability in this industry.
The Global Food Traceability Center welcomes the opportunity to serve and assist the seafood
industry and governments in moving seafood traceability forward.
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1 Corresponding author – Brian Sterling is Managing Director of the Global Food Traceability Center, which is a
program within the Institute of Food Technologists in Washington, DC. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org