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Case Study: Welfare and Ethics in the Seafood Supply Chain

In this case study we will explore animal welfare and ethics in the seafood supply chain from the perspective of food security and integrity. This concept was recently discussed by Fox et al. (2018).

Animal Welfare and the Seafood Supply Chain

Animal welfare is the protection of the health and well-being of animals. It is an increasingly important element of food choice for many consumers. In the seafood supply chain, aquatic food passes through many actors between the fisher, aqua-culturist and final consumer. Commonly, these include brokers, traders, wholesalers, distributors and other middlemen often distant from the consumer and the markets they supply. This complex and international structure makes it challenging to standardise and prove a seafood product has experienced all the requirements for welfare, including a suitable environment and diet, whilst being protected from unnecessary pain, injury, suffering and disease.

Consequently, this offers an opportunity for competitive advantage and increased market value from marketing claims of animal welfare, e.g. ‘Animal Friendly’, despite the fact welfare of seafood could have been undermined at any stage along the supply chain from primary production to slaughter. This is an element of food fraud with ethical consequences. Food Fraud is food which is deliberately placed on the market for financial gain with the intention of deceiving the consumer.

Types of Animal Welfare Issues in Seafood

Aquatic food is sourced from the wild fisheries (capture of aquatic animals from the wild for commercial value) or aquaculture (farming of aquatic organisms). In the wild capture fisheries, animal welfare can be compromised from the moment the fish encounter the fishing gear. Animals either die as a consequence of the harvesting process or enter the vessel alive before slaughter. The time to death can vary from minutes to hours to days and each animal can experience different specific trauma. Moreover, during harvesting some fish may escape or be discarded at sea.

For those not already dead, they may subsequently die from trauma or predation, while others may recover and survive – though nothing is known about sub-lethal effects on growth, predation and reproduction of these aquatic species. In aquaculture, i.e. farming aquatic species, welfare is an issue throughout the supply chain to the point of slaughter. Stocking density, water quality, diet, feeding techniques, husbandry practices, management procedures, live storage and transport all affect welfare prior to death.

Ethical Consequences

Welfare claims can be used as a tactical marketing ploy to gain good publicity and offer an attribute which demands a higher economic return. However, if these claims are false this ‘rips off’ the consumer; undermines efforts to support animal welfare in the supply chain; and makes it difficult for consumers to make an informed choice regarding animal welfare. For example, canned tuna was labelled as ‘dolphin-safe’ despite the fact that the species, skipjack tuna, is not implicated in the dolphin by-catch problem. This is misleading to the consumer and relates to current concerns around transparent labelling.

One of the major challenges in ensuring animal welfare is the fact current regulation does not define what constitutes as acceptable animal standards and labelling for seafood and the lack of standardised methods to prove a product has experienced all the elements of animal welfare in an internationalised supply chain. However, it is evident that certification schemes are increasingly targeting animal welfare and similar ethical issues.

What we would like you to do

From the summary of the paper Fox et al. (2018) provided in this article, please choose two of the following questions and add your response to the comments section below.

  • Are you surprised that animal welfare has been categorised as a type of food fraud?

  • Do you think animal welfare is important in the seafood supply chain?

  • Have you heard of any other potential issues to animal welfare in the seafood supply chain?

  • Do you think more should be done to ensure animal welfare in seafood? Why/why not?

  • Do you think consumers have a role in helping prevent food fraud and ensuring animal welfare?

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This article is from the free online course:

Farm to Fork: Sustainable Food Production in a Changing Environment

EIT Food