Fishy Labels: Your Seafood May Be Less ‘Green’ Than You Think

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NEW YORK (MainStreet) – People who strive to make eco-conscious eating decisions have to contend with the trend of “greenwashing” – when companies deceptively label their food products as being more eco-friendly than they really are. And it seems that such labels are particularly fishy when it comes to seafood.

The Pew Environment Group and the University of Victoria in British Columbia took a look at eco-labels on fish to determine just how much they really tell you about the true eco-friendliness of the fish on your plate. To do so, researchers developed their own standard to measure the environmental impact of various types of fishing practices, then evaluated how the different labeling standards actually took those factors into account. In that way, the researchers determined whether the eco-labels placed on fish actually tell you anything about the environmental impact of the products.

The results were a mixed bag, to say the least.

The good news is that seafood products labeled as organic do indeed seem to be produced in an environmentally friendly way.

“In terms of absolute performance, four of the five top-performing standards are organic standards,” reads the report. “Organic standards for marine aquaculture are generally meant to align with broader organic food production standards that place strong restrictions on waste management and the use and discharge of chemicals.”

Other labeling standards, however, fell short. The seafood quality standards employed by Whole Foods Markets and the Marks & Spencer chains, for instance, rate 70 and 62 on an absolute 0-100 scale, placing both in the bottom half of the 20 standards assessed. The report notes that many of the labeling standards evaluated in the study lose points for not placing a measurable standard that products must meet – for instance, the “Friend of the Sea” standard says that certified fish products must only use chemicals and drugs to “treat specific problems,” but does not elaborate on what this means.

“With the exception of a few outstanding examples, one-third of the eco-labels evaluated for these fish utilize standards at the same level or below what we consider to be conventional or average practice in the industry,” said the study’s lead author, John Volpe.

That a label rates poorly in these rankings doesn’t necessarily mean that seafood bearing that label should be treated with suspicion. But if you put a lot of stock in how ecologically friendly your food is, you may want to read the rankings and see how much each label actually tells you.

Matt Brownell is a staff reporter for MainStreet. You can reach him by email at matthew.brownell@thestreet.com, or follow him on Twitter @Brownellorama.

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