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Private standards and certification in fisheries and aquaculture

31 October 2011

The FAO has released a technical paper on private standards and related certification schemes in fisheries and aquaculture. It analyses eco-labels and food-safety and quality standards, looking at the issues that are driving their development and examining their implications as well as the challenges and opportunities for developing countries.

The paper suggests that private standards are now a key mechanism for large-scale retailers and commercial brand owners wishing to translate requirements to other parts of the supply chain. This is especially important as supply chains become more vertically integrated: ‘from the perspective of the firm, private standards and the certification sitting behind them can serve as mechanisms for safety and quality assurance. They can also facilitate traceability, standardisation of products from a range of international suppliers, and transparency of production processes. Attachment to an environmental standard or eco-label provides retailers and brand owners with insurance against boycotts from environmental groups and negative media coverage. Moreover, it also helps them tap into and grow consumer demand for ethical products’.

The paper also insists that ‘Although the impact of private standards is not uniform across markets, species or product types, it is likely to increase, including in developing countries, as supermarket chains consolidate their role as the primary distributors of fish and seafood products, and as their procurement policies move away from open markets towards contractual supply relationships’.

Key issues related to the overall impact of private standards include the associated compliance costs. These costs are borne disproportionately by those upstream in the supply chain, for this is where demands for certification impact, rather than on those downstream. The paper questions whether a redistribution of those costs is possible.

Finally, the proliferation of private standards causes confusion not only for consumers, but also ‘for fishers and fish farmers trying to decide which certification scheme will maximise market returns; buyers trying to decide which standards have most credence in the market and will offer returns to reputation and risk management; and governments trying to decide where private standards fit into their food safety and resource management strategies’.

Editorial comment

Private certification standards for fisheries sustainability have developed in parallel to a series of increasingly stringent public standards for food-safety and quality standards, as well as environmental and other standards (such as the EU’s IUU regulation). To access the EU market, ACP fishery products must comply with these increasingly stringent and complex sets of official standards. Once that market has been reached, such products must then comply with the private standards that are being adopted by large retail outlets. Meeting such standards incurs costs, which are borne in the main by those upstream in the supply chain, whilst most of the benefits accrue to those downstream. A key question then is whether, and if so how, the costs and benefits of certification can be more equitably shared ­– whether costs can be moved downstream, and benefits upstream.

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