Edible QR Codes Make Sustainable Sushi Fun and Convenient

Made of rice paper, edible QR codes help diners learn about the fish they eat at San Diego’s Harney Sushi. Photograph courtesy of Harney Sushi

Guests at the upscale Harney Sushi in San Diego now get a little something extra with their fresh tuna and crab rolls: edible QR (quick response) codes. When scanned with a smart phone or tablet, the codes take users to the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) FishWatch website, where they can learn about the sustainability of the seafood they are consuming.

Harney Sushi’s owners, Dustin Summerville and Kirk Harrison, and Executive Chef Robert Ruiz have been working with a number of fishery stakeholders and NOAA scientists at the agency’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in nearby La Jolla, California, to develop a local economy and culture of sustainable seafood.

Harney Sushi is one of the first U.S. restaurants to use edible QR codes, which are printed on rice paper with water-based, edible ink.

In 2010, Harney’s Chef Ruiz won the grand prize at the San Diego Bay Wine & Food Festival, and was named “Chef of the Fest.”

Ocean Views spoke with Ruiz about the QR code program:

Can you give us some background on the restaurant and how you got into sustainable fish?

We have two locations in San Diego and have been fully sustainable for over two years. We do over 25 tons of sashimi-grade fish a year. Our Oceanside location has a maximum occupancy of  260 people, and on a Friday, we’ll turn the restaurant over three times, so we have more than a thousand people walk through the doors. Imagine if you take that weekly, we reach a lot of people.

Our company was founded in Old Town, San Diego, on Harney Street 12 years ago. We’re proud to note that Troy Johnson, Food Network personality and Food/Restaurant Editor for San Diego Magazine, just ranked us the number one sushi in San Diego because of our efforts in sustainability. I was also honored to be listed as “the chef of tomorrow” in the “trends” section of the same issue, again, largely due to our work on sustainable seafood. This is my fifth year as executive chef.

I was born in Oceanside and grew up in San Diego. I moved to Hawaii’s Big Island as a teen and lived there for 10 years. I got a job cleaning fryers and worked my way up. I earned a spot in Kona, at the Hualalai Resort, a Four Seasons property.

I was trained by a CIA (Culinary Institute of America)-trained chef and apprenticed under a Japanese sushi chef from Tokyo, so I was trained very traditionally. The resort had their own aquaculture system, we farm raised our own fish and shrimp and grew our own produce. Hawaiian culture is an example of the utmost sustainable society, everything comes from there, so I came from a sustainable background. When I came back home to San Diego I was shocked that it’s not how it is in Hawaii.

Harney’s owners were excited about all the ideas I had for sustainability. I started looking at MSC (Marine Stewardship Council), the Monterrey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, and scoured the internet. The problem was I kept getting conflicting info, and that led me to start making phone calls.

I got ahold of Katie Semon at NOAA, who is responsible for their FishWatch, and began working with her. I didn’t want second-hand info, I wanted the best info possible. Now I work with Sarah Mesnick, a NOAA science liaison in La Jolla.

Scripps [Institution of Oceanography] is here in La Jolla as well. Sarah and I got the wheels rolling on a group project with Scripps and NOAA, so we cultivated a public event at Scripps called “Consider a Fish.” We did the first one on urchin, so we brought a bunch of interested people together to sit down and discuss the science. I talked about how urchin is used in food and the market value.

I was then invited to participate in a class at Scripps, with several scientists, on bluetech jobs, which are about sustainability and bringing aquaculture and fishing back to San Diego. The edible QR codes I created were founded in that class.

An edible QR code on a sushi roll
An edible QR code on a roll. Photograph courtesy of Harney Sushi

Can you take us through how the edible QR program works?

I had seen the concept in a sushi bar in London, with codes for MSC. Pastry chefs and bakers have used edible art for some time for cakes, it’s edible rice paper. With the help of Ro Zinniger, a SanDiego cake and sugar artist, we bought a printer and edible ink. It was a $400 investment.

The program went into full effect about three months ago. The response has been really outstanding, and we haven’t had any negative feedback.

When a QR code shows up on a diner’s plate they are confronted with it, they can’t avoid the issue anymore, they have to ask what it is. That’s our opportunity to educate them. The codes lead to an entire alphabet of fish on FishWatch, with lots of info, so consumers can educate themselves and make their own decision. The trouble with third-party fish guides is that they are lists of what people can or cannot eat, instead of letting people make their own decisions.

We’re helping create new sustainable fisheries because we’re creating a voracious demand for it.

Will the program help the local fishing community?  

San Diego used to be the tuna capital of the world. Now, I can’t get local line-caught tuna or albacore because the industry has left. But Genevieve Rich, a graduate student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, wants to bring a community fishing project to the area. Thanks to your article (“Red’s Best: Networking Small-Scale Fishermen“), she’s looking into using the tools from Red’s Best to help local fishermen log their catches. So people can get the fish they deserve.

I’m not like a Greenpeace advocate and I’m not a fisherman, but I’m where the tires meet the ground. I’m here making sushi one plate at a time for every customer I can, and I’m making these QR codes so they won’t forget about it.

In July, we’ll be serving MSC-certified albacore and we’ve already generated the QR code. It will go to a YouTube video showing the fleet. We’re also working on a sea urchin code, with Heather Krish, master of advanced studies in marine biodiversity and conservation at Scripps Institute of Oceanography.

I can reward the people who are doing the right thing.

Have you thought of including health information with the QR codes? National Geographic has a seafood decision guide that includes a layer of information on health, including mercury content and omega-3s.

I don’t have that info layered into the codes, but when it comes to the fisheries I get my fish from they have the info. I would love to do a QR code for you guys, that’s a gap I’d like to cover.

I know a lot of people are concerned about mercury, especially pregnant women. I tell people that we catch albacore that are only one to two years old, so they haven’t had time to accumulate that many toxins. A lot of small fish that have short lifespans are great for them to eat as well.

Have the QR codes affected your sales?

We are growing faster than our projections. We have been record busy.

We have also noticed that people are now ordering more sashimi, more straight fish, I think because we’ve given them more confidence. If they were scared about trying some of the specialty fish, now they can scan the code and know everything we have is traceable.

Chef Rob Ruiz teaches area youth about sustainable seafood
Chef Rob Ruiz teaches area youth about sustainable seafood. Photograph courtesy of Harney Sushi
Chef Ruiz examines fish at the NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center
Chef Ruiz examines fish at the NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center. Photograph courtesy of Harney Sushi

Do the codes help fight fish fraud?

Absolutely. We are working with the Ocean Discovery Institute, a charity here that helps underprivileged kids who are interested in marine science. Last month we had a group of the kids come in and they took DNA samples of all our fish. We’ll publish the results this June.

In the [recent Oceana report on fish fraud], West Coast sushi bars were worse than average for fish fraud, so with our QR codes we are shining a light in the darkest tunnel, that’s part of why we are gaining traction. Before coming here I worked in some really bad sushi bars and saw some atrocious things.

A lot of people in the industry are saying that labeling fish is hard and that people aren’t trying to be purposefully deceitful. But do you think a lot of fish fraud is actually intentional?

At a restaurant the margins are so slim that you know exactly how much you are spending on everything. So in my opinion the fraud is intentional.

There’s a giant hole in the sushi business: no matter where I go the chef doesn’t know where his fish comes from. He’ll get it from a wholesaler, who gets it from an auction. When a billion Chinese people start to eat sushi like we are it is going to vacuum the oceans dry. Piracy will go rampant. These sushi bars rely on the ignorance of the customer and murkiness of the fish trade in order to maximize the profit they are making.

One of the most popular dishes is escolar, which makes customers sick. That fish is trash, it’s illegal in many countries. But here many are calling it “white tuna.” They buy it for $6 a pound and sell it for tuna prices (tuna costs $24 a pound).

They also say, “Why would I buy a fresh snapper from New Zealand that’s $12 or $14 a pound when I can buy $4 tilapia that comes in a bag and is easier to prepare?”

recent article in Huffington Post said that so many people call escolar “white tuna” now that it should be considered acceptable, the author said it is “well understood vernacular.” What do you think of that?

That is outrageous.

Do you think the QR codes could be expanded?

I want to get QR codes on the East Coast and beyond. It would be such an honor to change the way Americans eat seafood.

Any last words?

I love San Diego and I hope through this project we’re going to bring local, traceable, sustainable fishing back here. I want to be known for my food, and that I love the ocean. I layer the science into it.

A chef’s job is to know where their fish is coming from. How can I be the only one asking this question?


Brian Clark Howard covers the environment for National Geographic. He previously served as an editor for TheDailyGreen.com and E/The Environmental Magazine, and has written for Popular Science, TheAtlantic.com, FastCompany.com, PopularMechanics.com, Yahoo!, MSN, and elsewhere. He is the co-author of six books, including Geothermal HVACGreen LightingBuild Your Own Small Wind Power System, and Rock Your Ugly Christmas Sweater.

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