According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations, the average person consumes more than 19 kilograms of seafood annually, more than double the per capita consumption in 1960.  This dramatic increase in the average annual consumption of seafood is due in no small part to the worldwide expansion in seafood capture and farming activities, and the development of efficient global supply channels, putting fresh and frozen fish and seafood within easy reach of most of the world’s population.
As the demand for seafood continues to expand, however, so too are concerns about the quality and safety of the seafood that makes its way through global supply chains to retailers and restaurateurs. Especially in emerging economies, seafood harvesting and processing practices may not always meet the quality and hygienic standards necessary to ensure the safety of seafood and seafood products. In addition, poor traceability practices and even outright seafood fraud have contributed to the complex challenge of providing consumers with seafood and seafood products that are free of potentially harmful contaminants and that contribute to a healthy and nutritious diet.
Retailers must therefore take the initiative to implement policies and systems that provide effective oversight of seafood supply chain activities. There are a number of important steps that seafood retailers can take, from supplier production line inspection and random product testing to periodic audits of suppliers and distributors. These and other supply chain best practices can help retailers to ensure the quality and safety of the seafood products they sell.
Challenges for seafood retailers
For most retailers today, the age-old practice of getting fresh seafood from a fisherman at the local dock is quickly passing into history. Instead, especially for those in the European Union and the U.S., fresh and frozen seafood is more likely to be imported from countries halfway around the world. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that nearly 90 percent of the world’s total farmed seafood and nearly 50 percent of world’s total marine capture seafood comes from Asian countries, including China. In the U.S. alone, almost 90 percent of seafood is imported, primarily from China, Thailand, Canada, Indonesia, Vietnam and Ecuador. 
This data illustrates why retailers are increasingly dependent on complex global supply chains to meet growing consumer demand for a wide range of fresh and frozen seafood and seafood products. Unfortunately, efforts to meet this demand can result in practices by producers and distributors that compromise the safety and quality of the seafood delivered to retailers. Processing plants often fail to implement necessary hygiene protocols or to maintain environmental conditions appropriate for the handling of fresh seafood. In other cases, workers have not been properly trained to minimise risks of contamination.
In some instances, producers and distributors intentionally mislabel seafood products, substituting a less-expensive or endangered species for a requested product. According to one study conducted in 2013, one-third of more than 1000 seafood samples analysed in the U.S. were found to have been mislabelled.  In addition to putting the health and safety of consumers at risk, seafood fraud undermines efforts to promote sustainable seafood wild capture and aquaculture practices.
All too often, the cost and consequences of these and other seafood supply chain practices are primarily borne by the retailer. Assuming that quality problems are actually identified before an unsafe seafood product reaches consumers, a retailer may lose sales and be left with an inventory of an unsellable food product that must be disposed of safely. Should unsafe or poor quality seafood actually reach the market, a retailer may face legal action from regulators, lawsuits from consumers or consumer groups, or both. At the very least, a retailer who is found to have sold or served unsafe seafood is likely to incur damage to its brand reputation and its financial performance as consumers seek out competitive retailers with a better safety record.
Important supply chain assurance best practices for seafood retailers
Given the potential adverse consequence that can result from poor supply chain management, retailers should consider implementing practices and systems that help to ensure the safety and quality of the seafood they sell. At a minimum, these best practices should include:
Product and supplier specifications and requirements—At the outset, retailers should establish clear and explicit standards regarding the seafood products they purchase. These specifications should include safety and quality issues, but can also address broader supplier concerns such as sustainability considerations applicable to the harvesting and farming of seafood products, and labour and workplace practices. Such specifications should be expressly stated in all procurement documentation, and a contractual requirement for suppliers.
Ongoing supplier oversight—Compliance with retailer specifications and standards must be verified through ongoing inspection, testing and oversight of supply chain activities. Supplier verification procedures should include:
- Production inspection, such as physical inspection of seafood products, sensory evaluation for odour, colour, texture and flavour, checks for packaging condition and verification of plant and production codes on product labelling;
- Random product testing, including chemical testing, microbiological testing, physical testing, testing for environmental contaminants and organoleptic analysis;
- Loading supervision, including quantity verification, verification of shipping containers for cleanliness and other external and internal conditions, temperature monitoring for maintaining appropriate refrigeration levels during transit, packaging, labelling and shipping marks, and documentation of container and seal numbers;
- Periodic audits to assess the adequacy and integrity of a supplier’s own safety and quality processes.
Penalties for supplier non-compliance—Retailers should also have clearly defined policies for addressing non-compliance on the part of suppliers. Unintended or accidental compliance failures should be thoroughly documented, with penalties dependent upon the frequency or severity of such failures. Wilful or repeated disregard by a supplier of the retailer’s stated specifications and requirements should be treated as a violation of its contractual obligations to the retailer, resulting in consequences up to and including termination of the contract, financial penalties and possible legal action.
Other considerations—In addition to the above issues, retailers will also want to adopt traceability procedures and other procurement policies and practices to ensure compliance with regulations in specific jurisdictions. This can be especially important for global retailers of seafood and seafood products operating in multiple locations around the world.
Working with an independent inspection and testing party
Seafood retailers can also mitigate their risks by working with an independent inspection and testing firm with in-depth experience in both food safety and global supply chain management. An experienced inspection and testing partner can identify weaknesses and potential issues with current supply chain policies and systems and help implement state-of-the-art food safety practices. An organisation with worldwide reach can also facilitate the inspection of seafood producers and distributors regardless of their location, and conduct random testing of seafood and seafood products before and after shipment to ensure compliance with a retailer’s quality and safety requirements. In the end, an investment in the services of a qualified inspection and testing partner can reduce financial and reputational risks to retailers and safety risks to consumers.
In a business increasingly characterised by a dependence on complex global supply chains, successful seafood retailers and restaurateurs require effective policies and procedures to reduce the risk of unsafe seafood reaching consumers. Seafood safety best practices for retailers should also include regular inspection and testing of producers and distributors that are part of their supply chain. An experienced inspection and testing partner can provide important assistance in ensuring the integrity of seafood supply chain management practices as well as the safety of seafood and seafood products.