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Can we trust fish from aquaculture – is it safe to eat?

01 November 2021

In this edition of our Aquaculture Series, we explore the practices that help to ensure farmed seafood is safe for us to eat. You will learn:

  • The different food safety hazards in the aquaculture supply chain
  • The measures in place to minimise food safety hazards during aquaculture production
  • How the EIT Food community is contributing to the production of farmed seafood that is safe to eat.

As wild-capture fishing levels remain at over capacity, aquaculture, also known as fish farming, is becoming increasingly important for global food production (1,2). It is becoming relied upon to meet the growing demand for sustainable seafood (3). Today, aquaculture now provides about half of the fish we eat, and by 2030, this is predicted to rise to 62% (4).

It is therefore vital that the aquaculture industry continues to provide consumers with a secure supply of nutritious, quality food that is authentic and safe.

Defining Food Safety

Food safety is defined by the Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC) as “Assurance that food will not cause harm to the consumer when it is prepared and/or eaten according to its intended use,” (5).

The CAC was established by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) to protect consumer health and promote fair practices in food trade (6,7).

However, one of the most widespread myths about farmed seafood is that it is unsafe to eat. Generally, this is untrue, as all seafood – both wild-caught and farm-raised – is known to be some of the most nutritious and safest sources of food (8).

Nevertheless, as is inherent with all foods, there are safety hazards and risks associated to seafood and related concerns around its authenticity and provenance. Let’s first explore the types of safety hazards that impact aquaculture products.

What are food safety hazards?

Food hazards are agents that have the potential to cause an adverse health effect and they can be biological, chemical or physical in nature (7,8,9). See below examples of biological and chemical hazards that can impact the safety of aquaculture produce.

A deep dive into biological hazards

In terms of biological hazards, some pathogenic micro-organisms can arise from poor sanitation and hygiene during farming, as well as at harvest and during transport (7) .

During capture, the edible muscle tissue of fish is normally sterile, however bacteria are usually present on the skin, gills and in the intestinal tract. The level of bacteria will depend on the quality of the water in which they have been cultivated. Factors which influence bacteria levels are water temperature, salt content, and the origin of fish-food consumed (7,10) .

A deep dive into chemical hazards

Aquaculture products can also be exposed to varying amounts of chemical contaminants from the environment. Examples include agrochemicals and heavy metals; these may accumulate in products that can cause public health concerns. Aquaculture feeds are another source of potential chemical hazard (11) .

Furthermore, due to infectious diseases it may be necessary to treat fish with medicines (12,13). Good practices can ensure that, even if  veterinary medicines are used, the resulting product is safe for human consumption (14,15). Importantly, the use of veterinary medicines in fish is required by regulatory controls, to ensure the safety of the final product. For example, it is recommended that after fish have been administered medicines a withdrawal period is included. This ensures that the fish cannot be harvested while the medicine is in their systems (15).

Food safety in the aquaculture supply chain

It is important to ensure the highest quality of fish products for the consumer. However, there are many points in the production and supply chain where fish is exposed to hazards. Also, as fish is a perishable product, special attention is required throughout the supply chain (16).

According to Best Aquacultural Practices (BAP), the aquaculture production chain can be defined in four main stages i.e. hatchery, feed mills, the farm and processing (17). From the processing plant the fish are then distributed to the retail markets and eventually supplied to the consumer (17).

Aquaculture Production Stages

  • The hatchery: this is where breeding, egg hatching and rearing of fish in the early life stages occurs. Once the fish are mature, they are transferred to the farm.
  • Feed mills: produce feed using a blend of ingredients specially formulated to meet the requirements of each fish species.
  • Farm: this is where the fish are grown to harvest size.
  • Processing plants: Once harvested, the fish are transported to a facility where they undergo processing. The fish are packaged then sent to markets.

Importantly, producers, processers and other stakeholders in the aquaculture supply chain must be able to identify and describe potential food safety hazards that might be present in their ingredients or finished products. They must also implement practices that control these potential hazards.

To meet food safety and quality standards, stringent hygiene measures have been adopted at national, regional and international levels. These measures are based on the Codex Code of Practice for Fish and Fishery Products (Codex Alimentarius Commission, 2016) and the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) food safety management system (7).

For example, a HACCP plan analyses the biological, chemical, and physical hazards from raw material production, procurement and handling, to manufacturing, distribution and consumption of the finished product. Critical control points are then identified as ways of preventing each hazard. Learn more about HACCP plan here.

Generally, when identifying and minimising food safety hazards, shorter supply chains come with less risks. As fish is a highly perishable product, time is a critical factor, as it affects the quality of the product and its “freshness.” Although the length of the supply chain can vary depending on the product and country of origin and final destination, the shorter the physical and time distance from primary producer to consumer, the more transparent the supply chain (18).

Ultimately, it is important to assure consumers an appropriate level of food safety in their final product.

Using traceability to enhance the trust in fish products

Seafood is one of the most internationally traded food commodities worldwide. Unfortunately, there is an economic incentive to sell low-value fish in place of more popular and expensive species (19). As such, the aquaculture sector is highly susceptible to food fraud (20,21). From mislabelling to species replacement in processing, to tampered expiry dates, there are several factors that make seafood susceptible to food fraud (20).

While seafood traceability was originally established to address food safety, more attention has focused on the legality aspect of fish and seafood supplies. Therefore, in addition to safety hazards, it is imperative that the source and species of the product is labelled, tracked and is traceable to its source to ensure consumer confidence (22). Although legal requirements, international standards and private voluntary standards require traceability in one form or another, none is prescriptive in the way it is to be achieved. There is also no universally acceptable definition for “traceability.”

Aquaculture Assurance and Certification programmes

While sustainability is about the protection of the environment, it is also about human health and economic viability of systems. Therefore many organisations that focus on sustainability also play an important role in assuring the food safety of aquaculture products (23).

  • Global G.A.P - For example, Global G.A.P. is a trademark and a set of standards for good agricultural practices that includes aquaculture. It supports farmers by connecting them to markets where they can sell their safely and sustainably produced agricultural products. Global G.A.P implement farm assurance systems and certifications that are recognized across the supply chain.
  • Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP) - Specific to seafood, Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP), is one of the most comprehensive certification systems for ensuring the sustainability of aquaculture products. It helps consumers by assuring that the seafood they purchase is produced in a way that is mindful of the animal’s welfare, the environment, workforce and community, food safety, and traceability.
  • Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) - The blue Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) label for wild-caught fish and seafood, and the green Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) label for farmed products, provide assurances of authenticity and source. They ensure that the product can be traced back to a certified fishery or farm.

Examples from the EIT Food Community

  • SuSea – an EIT Food RisingFoodStar is developing innovative preservation technologies for seafood. The startup aims to improve seafood safety as well as provide healthy and high-quality seafood products and reduce waste by increasing shelf life. SuSea is leading an EIT Food project ‘Sustainable Seafood Processing (SuSeaPro)’ alongside the University of Aarhus and the Agricultural University of Athens. While the primary aim of the project is to extend the shelf-life of seafood products it also aims to improve food safety and enhance consumer perception by reducing the microbial growth of harmful pathogens.

Mark Chryssolouris, CEO SuSea explains, “The aim of SuSeaPro is to scale up a processing technology which improves the quality and safety of food. This way we can improve public health by reducing the prevalence of harmful pathogens such as Listeria and reduce food waste at the same time.”

Hanne Mertens, Chief Operating Officer at Aqua Pharma Group elaborates: “We have a great responsibility to increase transparency in aquaculture and to reassure consumers that the fish we eat is sustainably farmed according to the highest welfare standards.”

In summary, there are many practices in place to ensure farmed seafood is safe to eat. Do you agree?

Up next in our EIT Food Aquaculture Series: How can digitalisation transform the aquaculture supply chain?

Attend EIT Food’s Aquaculture Showcase Event

Do you want to learn more about the latest sustainable innovations within the aquaculture sector? Join EIT Food’s virtual Aquaculture Showcase event on Tuesday 23rd November to discover our aquaculture activities that are driving impact. You will also explore the challenges and opportunities that the sector will face in the upcoming years. Limited spaces available.

Register here

References

  1. Nature: A 20-year retrospective review of global aquaculture.
  2. Reuters: World's fish consumption unsustainable, U.N. warns.
  3. FAO: The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2020.
  4. Global Seafood Alliance: What is Aquaculture and Why Do We Need It?
  5. FAO: WHO-Codex Alimeentarius
  6. FAO: Food Safety and Quality
  7. FAO: Code of Practice for Fish and Fishery Products.
  8. Global Seafood Alliance: Is Farmed Seafood Safe to Eat?
  9. CRFM Special Publication. No.10: Manual on assuring the Food Safety of Aquaculture Products.
  10. Indian Journal of Medical Research: Food Safety in Fisheries: Application of One Health approach.
  11. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences: Aquaculture Feed and Food Safety.
  12. Veterinary Medicine International: Maintenance of Fish Health in Aquaculture: Review of Epidemiological Approaches for Prevention and Control of Infectious Disease of Fish.
  13. Reviews in Aquaculture: Sustainable aquaculture requires environmental-friendly treatment strategies for fish diseases.
  14. FDA: Aquaculture and Aquaculture Drugs Basics.
  15. Global Seafood Alliance: Animal Health and Welfare in Aquaculture.
  16. FAO: Post-harvest Issues in Fisheries and Aquaculture.
  17. Global Seafood Alliance: What is Aquaculture and Why do We Need It?
  18. UNEP: The Role of Supply Chains in Addressing the Global Seafood Crisis.
  19. Fish Farmer Magazine: What’s on your plate? 
  20. Food Navigator: UN release report on vulnerability of fish food chain to fraud.
  21. Food Security: The Seafood Supply Chain from a Fraudulent Perspective.
  22. GS1: Foundation for Fish, Seafood and Aquaculture Traceability Guideline.
  23. SciELO: Understanding Aquaculture Certification.
Laura Elphick

About The Author: Laura Elphick

Laura Elphick is a Communications and Engagement Officer at EIT Food. She holds a First-Class Bachelor’s Degree in Consumer Behaviour and Marketing and is passionate about promoting a sustainable food environment to consumers.

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