Guest Column: Information, please!

First published in the MLA Newsletter, April, 2012.

Another Maine Fishermen’s Forum has come and gone. I always look forward to walking through the Samoset’s doors each year. My fondest memories there are the conversations I’ve had with fishermen over a pint, listening to anecdotes, and gaining some perspective.

I’m pretty lucky. Not everyone gets a chance to know fishermen, but most would relish the opportunity.

In fact, while sustainability is quite marketable, traceability – or the ability to track product from boat to plate – is even more desirable. People want to know where their food comes from.

More and more companies are capitalizing on consumers’ desire to connect by creating information portals to learn about producers.

For example, buy a bag of Stone-Buhr flour and you can meet the wheat farmers at www.findthefarmer.com. If you enter your bag’s “best by” date, you can find stories and videos about the farmers and producers in the Northwest. Their land ethic and history come through loud and strong. I love to see the images of the rolling fields and the families who are supported by the purchase of that bag of flour.

Icebreaker (www.icebreaker.com), a producer of wool apparel out of New Zealand, allows you to trace each garment back to the farmer who raised the sheep that contributed their wool to keep you warm. They use the opportunity to share the company’s story of quality and values.

In the seafood industry, a company called Trace Register has developed a web-based system to enable boat-to-plate traceability of seafood. There are small companies and groups of fishermen who are thinking creatively about how to use traceability to tell their stories.

Kwik’pak Fisheries works with Trace Register to trace their products and bring the fishermen’s stories to people who buy their salmon. At their website (www.kwikpakfisheries.com), you can learn about the community’s history, fishery management, and even the economic hardship and cost of living in a rural Alaskan village (a gallon of heating fuel costs $7.45!).

Another great tool is the data matrix code, a new type of bar code (pictured here). If you have a smart phone, download the NeoReader app and scan this code (seriously, you can scan this bar code with your phone). If you have an Android, the bar code reader is built in.

When you scan this bar code, you will be connected directly to Kwik’pak’s site, which includes a tab for a Trace Map that outlines the path the product traveled before finding its way to the checkout counter.

These data matrix codes are becoming ubiquitous. Look in magazines and stores, and you’ll start to see them more and more. In Asia, consumers shop with their phones all the time, scanning these codes to get product information as they browse.

It’s all pretty cool stuff and can go a long way toward reeling in the information-insatiable consumer. But, there’s also a more serious side to collecting and sharing information.

Demonstrating sustainability of seafood is increasingly becoming a prerequisite to accessing markets. Being able to trace product to its source goes hand-in-hand with knowing how it was harvested – a key piece of information for claiming sustainability.

Information is powerful. By collecting the right information and making it available, the seafood industry can capitalize on consumers’ preferences and demonstrate sustainability.

As part of our Sustainable Seafood program, we work with our partners to explore opportunities to accomplish traceability. And, in the coming year, we plan to ramp up efforts to get stories out about fishermen and the Gulf of Maine seafood industry.

So, I’ll look forward to continuing to connect with those of you in the fishing industry. After all, while online portals can create a greater appreciation and understanding to the average consumer, there’s nothing like good old fashioned conversation and camaraderie.

Jen Levin is the Sustainable Seafood Program Manager at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute.

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