In opaque seafood industry, some say consumers are hungry for more information

Imagine eating at a restaurant, taking out a smartphone and learning the names of the fishermen who caught your dinner.

If it sounds like a comedy sketch, that's because the idea was, in part, inspired by one — a 2011 sketch from the absurdist TV comedy "Portlandia" that featured a couple out to dinner, asking about the origins of their chicken, where its from, its name, its mental health.


"I said, 'You know, I know this is a spoof, but it's really not far off," said Jonathan Pearlman, director of operations at Congressional Seafood in Jessup, which has developed a barcode system for more than 30 of its products, allowing consumers to scan the code for more information. "People do want to know."

New rules proposed by the Obama administration would require seafood importers to record more information about the who, what, where and when of their products, in an effort to fight illegal fishing and seafood fraud.


But within the industry some businesses already are moving well beyond those requirements, which would apply only to certain species.

About 30 percent of major U.S. retailers, including Whole Foods and Wegmans, and 70 percent of large U.S. seafood companies have adopted Trace Register, a software program developed to track seafood to its origins, according to estimates by the Seattle company.

Others, like Congressional Seafood, have developed their own systems, responding to customers who are as hungry for information about their food as they are for the food itself.

"It has worked," Pearlman said. "People are absolutely buying the story."

Advocates have championed traceability as a way to shed light on an industry with a fragmented and complex supply chain that is prone to fraud and has changed dramatically in recent decades as more and more seafood is farm-raised and imported from abroad.

But the measures some business have adopted show it also makes financial sense, said Beth Lowell, a senior campaign director at Oceana, an oceans conservation nonprofit that published a report Monday highlighting some of the practices.

"They wouldn't be doing this on their own if it didn't make sense for their business and their bottom line," Lowell said. "It's seafood's time to have more information about where it was caught, what fish you are actually eating."

Wegmans started working on traceability around 2009, in response to consumer questions, said David Wagner, the grocer's vice president of seafood merchandising. The emphasis led the firm to drop some distributors, who weren't willing to invest in getting the information, but many more were, helping to spur changes in the industry.


"It's the cost of doing business with Wegmans," Wagner said. "Our customers want to know and they actually demand us to know."

The more local a product is, the easier it is for distributors to track, said Steve Vilnit, director of marketing at J.J. McDonnell, a Jessup-based seafood distributor.

The firm, which enters the data itself as part of product orders and sells millions of pounds of seafood annually, started working on the issue about four years ago and can now trace about 80 to 90 percent of all its seafood back to the source, he said.

"We're working hard to close that last gap," Vilnit said.

The information satisfies retailers and has helped the firm justify its prices, despite some of the additional cost, he said. Those benefits drove the measures, not regulation, he added.

"We're going to be ahead of the federal rules, which is great," he said. "That's where you want to be as a company. You don't want to be reactive."


The number of clients using Trace Register software roughly doubled between 2013 and 2016, from more than 1,000 in 24 countries to more than 2,000 in 40 countries, according to Trace Register, which is privately held and does not disclose revenue.

The first customers adopted the program because of sustainability concerns, said CEO Phil Werdal, who owned a fishing company before he started the Seattle firm. But more and more companies are turning to it for the data, which can be used to improve profitability as well.

"The real drivers now are real tangible economic benefits that companies can get," he said.

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Some still need convincing.

Robert T. Brown, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, said many buyers rely on longstanding relationships with fishermen to secure quality product, rather than require data about each catch.

"It would make a whole lot more red tape for us to go through and I don't believe it's going to benefit the market," he said. Still, he said, "nothing surprises me."


In the restaurant industry, the awkwardness of putting barcodes on the menu has kept Congressional Seafood's concept from really taking off, Pearlman said.

Still, he said, especially with regulators at the industry's heels, he expects the type of information they offer to become the industry norm one day.

"Everyone is going to have to do it," he said.