Integrating technology into a supply chain can be a challenge, and the seafood industry is no exception with the advent of traceability technology that monitors the catch from water to plate.
As more consumers demand to know where the fish they eat comes from, companies have started developing high-tech solutions to capture, receive and transmit data across every component of the seafood supply chain, from fishermen to processors, transporters, distributors and retailers.
Allied Market Research predicts the global market for traceability technology will grow 8.7% annually through 2020, at which point revenue could reach as high as $14.1 billion for companies specializing in such technology.
The idea of tracing a fish’s origins has taken on new significance in light of consumer concerns over sales of phony grouper and reports of inhumane working conditions at seafood processing facilities in developing countries.
Alfredo Sfeir, founder of the seafood verification software system Shellcatch, has said the technology could help crack down on fishermen who engage in species fraud to avoid fines, boost profits and get around regulations designed to prevent overfishing.
With Shellcatch, fishing boats are outfitted with a combination of GPS devices and cameras that record the haul. Back at the docks, fishermen weigh their catch on a video-equipped scale and tag each fish with Shellcatch barcodes and QR codes. That data is then uploaded into the cloud, where it can be accessed by a diner simply by waving a smartphone over the menu.
Food with a traceable history can make it an easier sell for fishermen, distributors and retailers, and upscale restaurants and supermarkets may be willing to pay a premium for fish with a verified background.
“Technology allows you to know the people behind your fish,” Sfeir told Bloomberg Businessweek in 2015.
Traceability is linked to the validity of seafood labels that boast about a product’s sustainability, authenticity, location and other factors important to consumers. Providing a socially responsible product can translate to higher profit margins, enhanced customer loyalty and improved brand reputation.
Suppliers are under increased pressure from consumers and retailers to provide traceability for their products. Sustainability has long been the buzzword surrounding the seafood business, but, these days, ethics have become a concern as major retailers from Whole Foods to Costco seek to ensure the sustainability and integrity of their products.
Traceability is seen as a way to soothe such worries.
Traceability technology can mitigate risks and limit the impact of public health incidents. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that food-borne illness has an annual economic impact of $15.6 billion, including medical care costs, recall expenses, productivity losses, lawsuits and other considerations.
A 2015 report by the Center for Science in the Public Interest found that seafood caused more illnesses per pound consumed than any other food category between 2003 and 2014.
At each level of the supply chain, traceability technology can increase operational efficiencies, improve inventory management and provide valuable analytics data that tell a clearer story about operations. For example, integrating a traceability system with accounting software can provide a detailed analysis of sales, as well as insights into the processes used in getting fish from the boat to the table.
Norpac Fisheries Export has developed a traceability platform that tags fish with a barcode that can reveal catch date and method, place of origin and other pertinent data. Once a fish arrives at the processor, its barcode is scanned, prompting the system to print a label. As the fish is cut into filets, new barcodes are generated to trace each filet to the whole fish.
Norpac founder Thomas Kraft has said the traceability program was developed in an attempt to shorten the logistics chain by more closely aligning product sourcing with client need.
“Our system can tell you where any given fish came from, who has handled it, how long it’s been in our facility, and where it’s going,” Kraft said in an interview published on the website of nonprofit group Future of Fish.
Suppliers, distributors and other companies in the seafood industry may face a variety of challenges to implementing a traceability technology system, according to a 2014 report by Future of Fish. For some, it may be a question of cost versus benefit, while others may have concerns relating to data privacy and security. Additionally, the global nature of the seafood supply chain makes it difficult to establish uniform standards and practices, from data capture to receiving and storage.
Similarly, participants along a supply chain may use different technology solutions, which can be a roadblock to data sharing and interoperability.
“Many technologies claim they can provide whole-chain visibility,” Tejas Bhatt, program director at the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), said in the Future of Fish report, titled Getting There from Here. “From a practical standpoint, that’s just not feasible. Forward-thinking technology vendors understand that they’ll be part of a whole, not the whole.”
In order to overcome obstacles to effective implementation of traceability technology in the supply chain, organizations such as Future of Fish recommend several important steps, including: