Monday, September 24, 2007

Re-branding fish

Invite the average shopper to tuck into pilchards and the response is likely to be a swift: "No thank you". Yet describe the same dish as Cornish sardines and they will be eagerly snapped up by health- conscious customers keen to enjoy the benefits of eating oily fish.

Marks & Spencer has seen a sales boom in fresh pilchards by the simple expedient of giving them the new name - dispelling memories of the mushy tinned product in tomato sauce.

And around the country fishmongers and restaurants are having similar success by replacing traditional names such as rat-tails and witch with the less off-putting grenadier and Torbay sole. Faced with dangerously low stocks of traditional favourites such as cod because of over-fishing, the industry is desperate to tempt consumers to try lesser-known species.

So the slimehead is now orange roughy, and Patagonian toothfish sells better as Chilean sea bass.

An M & S spokesman said of the rebranding: "It's a good way to encourage people to try different types of fish as part of our sustainable fish policy."

Fishermen have long argued that traditional names such as slimehead have - understandably - deterred shoppers from trying something new.

They have been behind other changes such as rockfish being sold as Pacific red snapper, and dogfish as rock salmon, and there are moves to have the megrim renamed as Cornish sole. Conservationists back moves to encourage shoppers away from over-fished species including monkfish and sole, and say the consumer can play a vital role in reversing the decline of fish stocks by choosing not to buy those at risk.

Conscientious shoppers have been advised to try coley, gurnard and cape hake as alternatives.


Julio said...

It is understandably true that the average shopper’s choice can be greatly influenced by application of a new fish name, replacing a less appetizing and therefore less marketable name. In fact, this topic is so important that discussions involving seafood purchasing as related to ocean conservation are incomplete without inclusion of points regarding species naming and product labeling. In short, without some standardization in naming, it is very difficult to impossible for conservationists to advise consumers which seafood species to buy and which they should avoid. Of course, a variety of information surrounding seafood products (stock status, extent of bycatch, gear type, habitat damage, fishery management and how aquacultured species are raised) must be taken into consideration when determining whether a given species is environmentally preferable or not. Worthy as these topics are of further discussion, I’ll limit my current discourse to the central topic of naming due to its critical importance in identifying, sourcing and marketing environmentally preferable species.

Seafood naming and the supply chain

As is commonly the case in evolutionary biology (including systematics, taxonomy and the scientific naming of organisms) problems surrounding naming practices in fisheries are considerable and begin with initial species capture by the first link in the supply chain: fishers. Although the species that are caught commonly have a scientific name, these names are not practical for use by fishers, who, hailing for multiple countries and cultures, call their catch by a variety of names using multiple languages. This fact is compounded as the catch then changes hands through a series of processors, trading companies, importers/exporters and suppliers before finally reaching retailers (restaurants and stores). The complexity of maintaining information characteristic of a given seafood product throughout this process is additionally compounded by the practice of replacing traditional common names with new, more marketable names. Such renaming can take place at the final, retail stage or during any of the preceding stages.

Seafood labeling and environmentally preferable products

For the purposes of this discussion, naming refers to the process of arriving at an agreed upon, commonly used name (or names) for each species while labeling refers to information accompanying the product name for retail purposes. Labels may include information concerning where the product is from, how it was caught, its status with regards to conservation and consumer health information. For those wishing to accurately label seafood products in order to help consumers make environmentally responsible decisions when purchasing seafood, inaccuracy in naming is a major hurdle. Additionally, consider the ‘double-edged sword’ quality inherent in the practice of renaming seafood products at point of sale: while it may be the case that less attractively named species are sometimes from healthy, underutilized stocks and are therefore preferable from an environmental standpoint, it is also true that renaming is used to make threatened, overfished species (of traditionally less appetizing names) more marketable. The latter include Orange Roughy (Slimehead), and Chilean sea bass (Patagonian toothfish), two species (among others) that should definitely be avoided by environmentally conscious consumers. Furthermore, as previously mentioned, the species or common name of a product alone can not accurately be used alone to make environmentally sound purchasing decisions, as in, “all Halibut are good”. This statement is certainly incorrect because source location, catch method and other factors all must be considered when deciding if a particular Halibut is environmentally preferable or not.

These are some of the primary reasons why FishWise is opposed to inconsistency in the naming of fish and other seafood products. Learn more about our organization’s work educating our member retailers and their customers about issues regarding the relative impacts different seafood products have on ocean health (

Julio Harvey, Ph.D.
Director of Science

dom said...

Thanks Julio.
I'm glad you limited your discourse, you don't half go on! :)

Julio said...

My pleasure Dom, I try to keep it brief whenever possible ;)