A Love-Hate Relationsgip with Edible QR Code Ecolabeling

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

-Chef Ruiz of San Diego-based Harney Sushi

The sushi is the best in San Diego and that’s probably not just because of the edible QR code tags. Nonetheless, the edible QR codes–rice paper with a smartphone-scannable code perched on your sushi that takes you to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s  (NOAA) FishWatch site–are a novelty. And it’s a novelty that, at least within a certain demographic of consumers, makes a place like Harney Sushi very hip.

Who is that demographic? It’s a demographic of consumers who are shown time and again in national polls to be increasingly concerned with knowing more about the food they purchase from a sustainability standpoint. Are they the majority of consumers? No, but the fact that the likes of Walmart has committed to sourcing all their seafood from “sustainable” sources, indicates the sustainably-minded consumer is probably not going away.

For the cynics out there who are wondering if that demographic is really as interested in sustainability as it is with being seen as being part of the sustainable food movement, I guess I’d ask whether it really matters. For those who think the swanky crowd ordering sashimi on a Saturday night at Harney Sushi are more excited about showing off their newest iPhone than actually learning about the status of the fish they are eating on NOAA’s FishWatch website, I suppose I’d say “So what?” I mean if Chef Ruiz, winner of the 2010 grand prize at the San Diego Bay Wine and Food Festival, can make eating sustainably-harvested sushi “in,” should we really be concerned with the motivations behind why all those sushi eaters who might otherwise be gorging on unsustainably-harvested blue fin sashimi are putting their money down at Harney Sushi? [For more on Ruiz, see National Geographic’s Brian Clark Howard’s interview with him.]

Don’t get me wrong, I have issues with the whole edible QR code thing. For one, as someone who takes a great deal of interest in cooking and using food as a form of conversation with my guests, the last thing I want that conversation to do is encourage anyone to pull out a smartphone at the dining room table. I mean, really? While I won’t go quite as far as saying I’d like smartphones to be sent the direction of cigarettes when it comes to dining, there are few things I detest as much as someone using a mobile at the table. So, yea, I don’t really like the whole edible QR code thing, but I’m not going to knock it either if it’s promoting a much-needed conversation about sustainability and seafood.

While some may snarkingly disparage the so-called sustainably-minded consumer’s motivations, it has become increasingly fashionable in seafood to go directly after the sustainability initiative itself (amongst my group of friends, this phenomenon really took off after NPR’s three-part series called “Under the Label: Sustainable Seafood“), which aired this winter. There has been a lot of talk recently about trust and sustainable seafood. For example: “Did the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) really certify the entire Canadian swordfish catch even when conservation groups and some scientists provided data showing that shark bycatch in the North Atlantic long-line swordfish fishery was significant (one study presented data showing two sharks are killed as bycatch for every one swordfish landed by Canadian fishers off Nova Scotia)?” Does a Aquaculture Stewardship Council logo associated with a farmed fish really make that fish a more sustainable choice than some competing wild fisheries given the use of antibiotics in ocean pens, the impacts of escaped farmed fish and the issues associated with feed and waste?

These are important issues that need further investigation, dialog, regulation, and the like, but they are not the point of today’s blog entry. The point of today’s blog entry is, I think,  to point out the fact that, despite the fact there are plenty of problems with ecolabeling, and there will always be reasons to take issue with this initiative or that scheme, the bottom line is we are talking more now than ever about where the fish we eat originate and how they are harvested.

We are talking about the health of the ocean and our relationship with it through the seafood we buy at markets and restaurants. Recent studies show a critical mass of Americans say they are willing to put their money where their mouths are and pay a price premium at the point of sale for a fish brought to market more sustainably. This is a good thing, and I think sometimes we can lose sight of that fact as we squabble about which seafood sustainability ranking program is best or how a certain certification or assurance initiative is compromised because of the mega-store or chain it serves or the relationship it has with commercial fishing. These are important questions, and we must explore them in depth. There is no doubt that too many ecolabels create confusion and, ultimately, consumer fatigue, and the market forces at work here certainly encourage less scrupulous companies to head down the path of greenwashing.

So, yes, we need to be vigilant, but let’s also not lose sight of how far we have come in just a little over a decade with seafood. Most importantly, let’s keep having the conversation…

…even if whipping out your smartphone at the dinner table to scan an edible QR code is the conversation starter.

About Ret Talbot

Ret Talbot is a freelance writer who covers fisheries at the intersection of science and sustainability. His work has appeared in publications such as National Geographic, Mongabay, Discover Magazine, Ocean Geographic and Coral Magazine. He lives on the coast of Maine with his wife, scientific illustrator Karen Talbot.
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