05/16/2012 11:35 am ET Updated Jul 16, 2012

Spotlight on (Sea)Food Safety and Transparency

As a company that promotes the consumption of clean, safe seafood as part of a healthy diet, it's our belief that consumers have the right to know what's in the food they're eating -- this belief represents one of the core values of Safe Harbor and one of the overarching principles that drives our business. Recently food safety and transparency in the food supply chain have been topics of much discussion, and for good reason. As it becomes more and more apparent that the FDA seems ill-equipped to assume a leadership role in ensuring food safety, are food manufacturers missing an opportunity? Might it be that embracing, implementing and advertising increased food safety measures and transparency can be a powerful marketing tool, one that provides differentiation in a packed and overcrowded marketplace?

While the federal government may be reluctant to embrace increased oversight over the food supply chain, the opinion of the American public on the subject is as unanimous and straightforward as ever. Take for example the federal issue of mandatory food labeling for genetically engineered foods -- a partisan-busting 91 percent of voters favor an FDA requirement that "foods which have been genetically engineered or containing genetically engineered ingredients be labeled to indicate that." A mere 5 percent oppose labeling, while another 5 percent have no opinion. As the strategic polling, survey and opinion research firm The Mellman Group so eloquently opines:

Underlying support for labeling is a clear vision of consumer rights, as well as a deep-seated concern. Voters believe they have a right to know what they are putting in their mouths and into the bodies of their children. If you don't believe Americans see that as a fundamental right, try convincing someone they don't have that right to know. Moreover, voters believe they have a related right to decide for themselves what they ingest and recognize that, absent labeling, the right to decide is rendered hollow.

This value of the right to know is catching fire as evidenced by the California Right to Know 2012 Ballot Initiative. California has officially become the first state to gather enough signatures (971,126) to put the labeling of genetically engineered foods on its statewide ballot this fall. While the Right to Know initiative is a major step in the right direction, unfortunately it is a California-only proposal and only covers GMO foods. Food labeling and transparency should be a fundamental, mandated practice employed across every food category, even those with the most complex supply chains.

Like seafood, for example.

Unbeknownst to many, fish is the most traded food commodity in the world (UN FAO State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture, 2010) and the seafood supply and distribution chain might be the most complex of any food commodity internationally traded today. Approximately 85% of the seafood Americans eat is now imported, with less than 2% being inspected by the FDA, the federal agency charged with oversight of seafood. Unfortunately for American consumers, offshore seafood producers simply do not face the same oversight and regulation as domestic producers, which leaves the door wide open for corner-cutting, the use of potentially hazardous additives and chemicals and other abuses. David Love, the lead author of a recent Johns Hopkins study, (linked above and again here) sums up the situation quite succinctly stating, "Imported seafood may carry risks in terms of food safety because the FDA does not have the resources to proactively and regularly inspect foreign facilities, and it relies on product testing as a last resort."

Especially as it applies to seafood (and according to Gary Hirshberg, Chairman of Stonyfield Farm, and a Partner in the Just Label It Campaign) it would seem that our food system has been adept at "keeping the lights out or at least dimmed." However, viral media, the Internet and the instantaneous, abundant free flow of information is changing this ... quickly. Information is now available at one's fingertips, accessed quickly with a simple key stroke. Having the information we need to make an informed choice is no longer simply expected. It's required. In the words of Mr. Hirshberg:

As the chairman of a $370 million national yogurt company, I've watched the consumer demand for more information about our food explode over the past decade. Whether it's the source of the ingredients, increases in agri-chemicals, hormones, antibiotics, plastics additives or potential allergens, the public is clearly far more engaged in making informed choices than ever before.

So where should the onus of food safety and transparency lie? Unfortunately our federal government is under-manned and under-funded and simply can't be relied upon to be the protectors of public health. Many forward-thinking food manufacturers (seafood and otherwise) feel that it is up to the industry (NOT the government) to increase the transparency of the supply chain and safeguard the very consumers eating their products; subsequently, as consumers become more educated (as can be seen domestically with the rapid rise of the organic and local food movements) and continue to demand labeling, transparency and increased food safeguards, advertising and strategically utilizing these "characteristics" of one's business will become major marketing "weapons," differentiators that will prove that implementing and accepting these consumer-backed "trends" are actually good for business. As Mr. Hirshberg above so deftly put it, "Instead of fighting transparency, it's time to embrace it." We couldn't have said it any better ourselves.