National Geographic Society Newsroom

Can Your Smartphone Combat Seafood Fraud?

Let’s say it’s Saturday night and you’re out to dinner with your family, a friend, or even better – on a date. You check out the menu and a seafood dish featuring “wild rockfish” really wows you. Just as you’re about to order you begin to rethink your decision. Questions such as: “How fresh is...

Let’s say it’s Saturday night and you’re out to dinner with your family, a friend, or even better – on a date. You check out the menu and a seafood dish featuring “wild rockfish” really wows you. Just as you’re about to order you begin to rethink your decision.

Questions such as:

“How fresh is this fish?”
“Was this product previously frozen?”
“Is this really rockfish?”
“Is this a sustainable option?”
“The menu says local, but where exactly did this fish come from?”

…all run through your head and then you glance over at your date in a panic thinking to yourself: this person is going to think I’m completely nuts when I start to ask the waiter all of these questions. (Cue this scene from Portlandia.)

You sneak your smartphone out of your pocket and discreetly check an online seafood guide under the table. You type “rockfish” and wait for the red, yellow, or green light on sustainability ranking.

Finally it loads (is there no service in this restaurant? did my date notice?) and you breathe a sigh of relief: green on sustainability! Yes!

You glance up from your lap – yes, they noticed – and it’s your turn to order. You are ravenous and place your order without questioning the waiter. You tuck your phone back into your pocket and try to stop thinking about your questions still unanswered.

Should ordering seafood really be this hard?

Some industry innovators are paving the way for transparency. Boston-based seafood distributor Red’s Best takes in fish from small-scale, responsible fishermen and utilizes QR (quick response) Codes that provide the consumer with detailed information on the product. Restaurants who source from Red’s know exactly what they’re getting and who they’re getting it from.

“Of course local fish should be packaged and consumed locally, but that’s not what happens,” Auerbach said.

The seafood supply chain isn’t always straightforward; there are often many steps involved in getting seafood from the boat to your plate. By the time it arrives in front of you, the product may have been caught in one country, processed in another, packaged in another, and then shipped back to the wholesaler to work with a distributor who then sells to the restaurant. This complicated process makes it much more difficult for the majority of restaurants to provide accurate information to the consumer. Information that they would probably be more inclined to provide if they had a clearer picture of the process (and the resources to do so).

Now consumers in Washington, DC, can also learn about their seafood and the fisherman that caught it, in at least one progressive seafood restaurant in town.

 QR Codes on the glass seafood display at the Fish Market at BlackSalt Restaurant  in Washington, DC. Photo by Maggie Hines.
QR Codes on the glass seafood display at the BlackSalt Fish Market in Washington, DC. Photo by Maggie Hines.

“Getting what you pay for is important. We are working to level the playing field. The customer deserves to get the best product for their money,” said BlackSalt’s fishmonger, MJ Gimbar, on Thursday at an event that launched The REEL Story traceability program.

Gimbar worked with his seafood supplier, Congressional Seafood, to create a database of information on fish served in their restaurants. (Congressional Seafood’s Jonathan Pearlman said the effort was actually inspired by the above mentioned Portlandia skit). Customers with smartphones can scan QR Codes on the glass display case at the front of the restaurant or on a special menu (by request) to obtain more information on the species available for purchase. Programs like The REEL Story hold suppliers accountable and gives customers a tool to combat seafood fraud: their smartphones.

This is what the app looks like (iPhone screen shot):

Information such as harvest location, gear type, fisherman name, and background is available for BlackSalt Restaurant customers with smartphones.
Information such as harvest location, gear type, fisherman name, and background is available for BlackSalt Restaurant customers with smartphones.

This is absolutely a step in the right direction, but it remains to be seen if customers will use this technology.

Let’s face it: it’s not polite to use your cell phone when out at a restaurant and really, who regularly scans QR Codes? Don’t get me wrong, they have great marketing potential, but they simply haven’t been a very successful technology. At BlackSalt’s The REEL Story launch event, I had difficulty finding the best free app in the app store and then, once I found one without ads popping up in my face, the bugger wouldn’t scan on the glass at BlackSalt’s Fish Market so I had to walk over to the poster. Not a huge deal for me, but potentially a significant turnoff for the average or non tech-savvy customer just walking in to buy a filet of fish for dinner.

A poster at the BlackSalt Fish Market in Washington, DC serves as a QR Code directory for customers who want more information on their seafood. Photo by Maggie Hines.

The Black Restaurant Group (BRG) has yet to find out how customers react to this new menu feature. As the seasons change and product availability varies, companies like BlackSalt and Red’s Best will have their hands full updating their respective databases so that customers have seamless access to current information. I’m curious to know how many times the special QR menu is requested and how many man-hours are required to keep the database accurate throughout the year. Will the cost be justified? Will other restaurants be able to afford the upkeep for a similar system?

Not many restaurants have the luxury of staffing an in-house fishmonger like Gimbar, and sustainability and health impacts are two key components that could be added to the conversation. BRG supports sustainable fishing practices, but they don’t explicitly follow a specific national seafood guide. In this case, it’s very much up to the consumer to know what fishing methods and species are the best choice.

Hope for the Future

As they say, an educated customer is the best customer. In the not so distant future, restaurant menus will be iPads and you’ll be able to tap a menu item, launching a quick video clip on the farmer or fisherman who supplied you with your delicious meal. Customers could connect with farmers and fishermen no matter the distance. Wouldn’t that be something?

 

Additional seafood fraud related coverage on Ocean Views: “Exposing Fish Fraud: 20/20 Reveals Why We Need Traceability in Seafood” & “New Oceana Study Finds 33% of Seafood Mislabeled“.

About National Geographic Society

The National Geographic Society is a global nonprofit organization that uses the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. Since 1888, National Geographic has pushed the boundaries of exploration, investing in bold people and transformative ideas, providing more than 14,000 grants for work across all seven continents, reaching 3 million students each year through education offerings, and engaging audiences around the globe through signature experiences, stories and content. To learn more, visit www.nationalgeographic.org or follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Meet the Author

Maggie Hines
Maggie Hines is the program specialist for National Geographic's Pristine Seas project. She works with Explorer-in-Residence Dr. Enric Sala on all aspects of the Pristine Seas project, including planning and executing expeditions to the most remote places on the planet. A Virginia native, her summers were spent on the Chesapeake Bay at her grandmother’s house and on the shores of North Carolina. Maggie received a B.A. in Studio Art with a concentration in photography, and a B.B.A. in Management with a concentration in technology, innovation and entrepreneurship from James Madison University.