The COVID-19 global pandemic is having a profound impact on all industries. How can the seafood supply chain reassure its customers that its products remain sustainable and safe?

Assurance in a time of uncertainty

Farmed seafood growers and suppliers generally rely on accreditation to a third-party certification scheme to assure buyers and consumers that the products they purchase are safe and sustainable. Farmed certification has been greatly affected during the COVID-19 crisis because it involves more on-site assessments over shorter certificate cycles (1-3 years). In comparison, wild certification has been less affected because it tends to have longer certificate cycles (5 years) with less on-site assessments.

The three main standards utilized by the farmed seafood industry are:

  • Aquaculture Stewardship Council
  • Best Aquaculture Practices
  • Global G.A.P.

Under normal circumstances, depending on the program, certificates are issued with a validity period of between one and three years. Regular surveillance audits are used to ensure the certification remains justified during longer periods of validation.

However, we are not living in normal times. Travel restrictions have been imposed all over the world, meaning standard auditing procedures are no longer possible. In response, all three standard owners have issued guidelines on how to safely conduct auditing activities during the pandemic – they should each be lauded for the speed of their response.

Immediate Solutions and Work Arounds

A variety of measures have been put in place to ensure business continuity and also offer assurance around seafood that is bought and sold. Some of the measures include:

  • Temporary permission to extend certificates by 3-4 months
  • Authorization to use remote audits in some situations, for extensions beyond 4 months, to ensure oversight on certified facilities. Remote auditing methods may include:
    • Off-line – desk top reviews, etc.
    • On-line – real time oversight using video conferencing software, etc.
    • Combination of off-line and on-line

New auditing technologies are also being utilized, such as the SGS QiiQ Application – a remote audit and inspection application that uses the site’s Wi-Fi and operates in real time to gather video evidence of compliance to critical audit controls/clauses and observe product attributes. If the standard requires the submission of samples (product or water) to laboratories, certified facilities may use the same QiiQ application for demonstrating proper sampling practices.

Pandemic or not, we recommend that certified facilities always utilize courier services with cold-chain controls to preserve sample integrity during transportation from facility to laboratory in the event of disruption.

The measures introduced by each program will remain in place until the third quarter of the year. As the pandemic develops, and the advice from the WHO changes, it is important for all stakeholders to closely monitor the situation, adapting their responses by introducing new risk assessment criteria and contingency plans.

Consumer demand for farmed seafood that can demonstrate its safety and sustainability has not diminished during the pandemic. To ensure supply chains remain effective, the industry has responded with close cooperation between farmers, factories, and retailers, and the quality control, inspection, and testing sector. This close cooperation has allowed the major seafood production regions such as Asia to function efficiently, despite the restrictions enforced during lockdown.

When the pandemic is over, there will be things we can learn. For example, in the future, how much of the certification and auditing process can continue to be conducted off-site? Can some applications continue to provide the same level of assurance for lower risk audit criteria? How can technology, such as video, be used to improve current practices without infringing on an individual’s privacy?

Without doubt, the pandemic will bring about changes in the way we regard global supply chains and the assurances needed to bring safe and sustainable products to market. It should be hoped the close cooperation we have seen during lockdown will continue to be one of the changes.

Resilience in the Seafood Supply Chain

A common response to the pandemic around the world has been the mandated "lockdowns". These have had a severe impact on seafood processing workforces, resulting in shortages and production delays.

Further upstream, we understand that animal welfare will become a major issue. Aquaculture seafood must be harvested, or it must continue to be fed and will therefore continue to grow. It may be that larger sizes can command higher market prices, or it may be that the market will have to absorb this simply to keep the inventory moving to markets.

Recent events have seen both shifts in consumer behavior, known as panic buying, and major disruptions in transportation and logistics for many seafood markets and supply chains. One of those most negatively affected has been hospitality but, on the positive side, there has also been an increase in retail and home delivery services. By way of example, some food service distributors and seafood suppliers have shifted their focus away from the temporarily dormant restaurant trade and into retail. The result is shelves left devoid of meat proteins through panic buying have resulted in increased seafood sales.

Another effect of the pandemic on the supply chain is that sales of fresh seafood with a shorter shelf life have suffered as demand from export markets has receded. Many buyers are now purchasing online, eliminating the consumer’s experience of buying fresh fish at the store or market. If this trend continues, a future challenge for the industry will be how it can influence the online marketing of seafood and break into new markets.

How seafood is globally traded, the form it takes (fresh, frozen, shelf-stable), where it is sold (online or through stores), and how assurances regarding food safety and sustainability can be offered, are all areas of opportunity that have been thrown up by the pandemic. What won’t change is the need for the industry to continue to promote the good stories behind seafood’s sustainability and its health benefits.

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For more information, please contact:

Cormac O'Sullivan
SGS Segment Manager, Seafood and Aquaculture
t: +353 87 1169737

Kevin Edwards
SGS Seafood Business Development Manager
t: +1 973 461 7903

SGS Next Normal Solutions

The COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented in the modern era, posing unforeseen challenges to business continuity. At SGS, we are working hard to meet those challenges and support international efforts to beat COVID-19.

Find out more about our Next Normal Solutions >