Science you can use: supply chain transparency

There are various contexts by which ‘transparency’ can be defined though in general terms it refers to the openness and disclosure of information that, ideally, is such that it would allow others to readily see what actions are, or are not, being conducted.[1] [2] The importance of transparency in civil life was highlighted by right-to-know movements in more advanced economies during the 1960s and 1970s – typically over local industrial pollution or secrecy in government. Since then the ideals of transparency have become an important facet of modern society,[3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] so much so that “unprecedented” openness in U.S. government was a major pledge of Barack Obama in the run-up to his first presidential election.[9]

Society and trust in food

Concerns over such issues as food safety and health, food production impacts, and unfair pricing have long been addressed by food reform and consumer advocacy movements.[10] [11] [12] As far back as the 1890s, for example, the U.S. ‘pure food’ movement pushed for legislation to “secure honesty” in food product safety. This led, ultimately, to the creation of the Food and Drug Administration in the U.S. in 1906.[13]

Food reform and consumer movements have since extended around much of the globe and, along with environmental and other social movements, are exerting considerable influence on food production. These include such initiatives as Fair Trade and other third party certification schemes, sustainable (sea)food programs (Seafood Watch, Ocean Wise, MSC, ASC, BAP), community-supported agriculture and fisheries, organic food production, worker rights advocacy, food safety and labelling regulations, consumer awareness campaigns, eco-labels, among an array of other endeavours.[14] [15] [16] [17] [18] [19] [20] [21] [22]

A recurrent theme, however, underlies past and current efforts in reforming food systems: simply, to restore or build trust in food and food product claims.[23] [24] [25] Transparency initiatives are now seen as central to meeting those objectives.[26] [27] [28]

Trust, transparency, and seafood 

Trust in food, of course, now extends far beyond the original food adulteration issues arising during the 19th century to include an ever-increasing array of social, environmental and ethical concerns and requirements. This has placed seafood production under rapidly expanding scrutiny by numerous stakeholders, particularly given the industry’s impact on global fish stocks and food security and its recalcitrance in addressing overfishing. Widespread mislabeling, ongoing IUU fishing and increasing numbers of reports documenting the use of forced labor, among other concerns, along with rising consumer awareness, are further fueling societal demands for transparency, action and accountability.

Our partners at Edelman Communications have conducted a comprehensive study on consumer trust, called the Trust Barometer, that looks at the relationship between consumer and brands or products.

The opaqueness enveloping seafood supply chains is well documented.[29] [30] [31] Indeed, a recent FAO report makes mention of a “veil of secrecy” permeating fisheries and, further, suggested that lack of transparency is the “underlying facilitator of all negative aspects of the global fisheries sector.” [32] This has prompted a variety of stakeholders to embark on a number of recent initiatives, such as:

  • development of the Global Record of Fishing Vessels, Refrigerated Transport Vessels and Supply Vessels (Global Record); initiated by the FAO and endorsed by FAO member states to combat IUU fishing the Global Record is also envisioned as a catalyst to improve overall transparency within the fisheries sector;[33] [34]
  • formation of Global Fishing Watch by Google, Oceana and SkyTruth; uses satellite imagery and data from automatic ship identification systems (AIS) to investigate and monitor global at-sea transshipment, an important facilitator of IUU fishing;[35] [36]
  • implementation of seafood traceability directives by an increasing number of major fish importing countries and regions,[37] such as those recently issued by the U.S. and European Union to counter illegal fishery products from entering the marketplace;[38] [39]
  • formation of a variety of organisations and firms, often multi-stakeholder, that are dedicated to facilitating openness and responsibility in seafood production; examples include Fisheries Transparency Initiative, Ocean Disclosure Project, Seafood Task Force, Seafood Intelligence, Seafood Trade Intelligence Portal, The IFITT Project and Seafish.

Technology and traceability

There is little doubt that increasing transparency and information in supply chains is expected by civil society, industry and retailers, regulatory bodies, NGOs, and government agencies, though numerous challenges on how it can best be organized need to be addressed.[40] Traceability systems are one important enabler of transparency and are increasingly viewed as a vehicle to further the governance and regulation of both fisheries and aquaculture.[41] [42] [43] [44] However, effective implementation of traceability in the food sector in general is challenging as there are often multiple interacting domains and actors;[45] [46] [47] [48] this is particularly the case for seafood given its global trade and complex supply systems.

Nonetheless, advancements in information and communication technologies (ICT), such as Big Data analytics, cloud computing and the Internet of Things, molecular technologies and integrated information systems are rapidly transforming the ability of society and industry to promote, operationalize and demonstrate transparency for a range of social, environmental and economic concerns along supply chains. Recent developments include:

  • advanced product tracking capabilities involving new generations of radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags, bar codes, scanners, sensors and RFID readers;[49] [50] [51]
  • advances in metabolomics, genomics and the forensic sciences, for example, for food authentication (i.e., product identification and provenance);[52] [53] [54] [55]
  • virtual monitoring via remote, high-powered sensors from virtual monitoring stations (e.g., mini-satellites, drones) which can then be aggregated and displayed on open-source Web platforms; virtual monitoring appears to have great potential to transform at least some certification schemes by enhancing the auditing of the compliance process, which relies solely on brief, routine, labour-intensive and potentially inaccurate field investigations.[56]
  • analysis and research into the efficacy of distributed ledger systems such as blockchain, a technology that shows great promise in providing verifiable and tamper-free chain-of-custody records,[57] [58] [59] and emerging efforts to design a traceability technology architecture that will enable global interoperable traceability for seafood.[60]

“The marketplace expectations for traceability and transparency seem destined to grow, especially considering we are moving ever deeper into the digital age. Many people, particularly younger generations, expect nearly all information to be readily available at all times. Adding those elements of traceability and transparency into new products is no longer an “add-on”; they are necessities that should be a key component of any long-term business plan.”

Melissa Garren, Chief Science Officer, Pelagic Data Systems, excerpt from SeaWeb’s group interview with traceability and transparency experts

The seafood industry is facing ever-stringent compliance mechanisms along with rising consumer awareness and demands for safe, socially responsible and sustainable food products. At the same time, government and regulatory bodies, corporations and businesses, consumers and a range of other stakeholders are seemingly in agreement that transparency is indispensable for accountability, good governance and business, socially responsible behavior and for increasing trustworthiness and trust.

There is also increasing agreement that companies seeking to further transparency throughout their operations should commit to  , academia, government agencies and NGOs, thus taking advantage of collective expertise and action.[61] [62] [63] [64]

Furthering transparency via investment in effective traceability systems is increasingly being shown to provide a variety of benefits to a company’s triple bottom line, for example by: reducing risk; meeting regulatory and certification requirements; providing access to more accurate and timely information for decision-making; delivering competitive advantage through documenting desirable product characteristics; and perhaps most importantly, building and maintaining trust with end customers; and augmenting social legitimacy.[65] [66] [67] [68] [69] [70]

Visit the Transparency Module for expert insights >>

[1]   Orsini, A. and Biermann, F. 2013. Transparency as a governance mechanism. International Studies Review 15: 579-581.

[2]   Gold, S. and Heikkurinen, P. 2017. Transparency fallacy: Unintended consequences of stakeholder claims on responsibility in supply chains. Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal: DOI:10.1108/AAAJ-06-2015-2088.

[3]   Emerson, T.I. 1976. Legal foundations of the right to know. Washington University Law Quarterly 1976(1): 1-24.

[4]   Waddock, S. 2008. Building a new institutional infrastructure for corporate responsibility. Academy of Management Perspectives 22(3): 87-108.

[5]   Mol, A.P.J. 2015. Transparency and value chain sustainability. Journal of Cleaner Production 107 154-161.

[6]   Bushman, R.M. and Smith, A.J. 2003. Transparency, financial accounting information and corporate governance. Economic Policy Review (April): 65-87.

[7]   Beulens, A.J.M. et al. 2005. Food safety and transparency in food chains and networks – Relationships and challenges. Food Control 16(6): 481-486.

[8]   Gupta, A. 2010. Transparency in global environmental governance: A coming of age? Global Environmental Politics 10(3): 1-9.

[9]   Coglianeze, C. 2009. The transparency president? The Obama Administration and open government. Governance 22(4): 529-544.

[10] Anderson, C. 1995. The food information war: Consumer rights and industry prerogatives. In: Eating Agendas: Food and Nutrition As Social Problems: 167-187. Maurer, D. and Sobal, J. (Eds.). Aldine de Gruyter, New York.

[11] Larchet, N. 2012. Food reform movements. In: The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, Vol. 1, 2nd Edition: 796-805. Smith, A.F. (Ed.). Oxford University Press.

[12] Stanziani, A. 2007. Negotiating innovation in a market economy: foodstuffs and beverages adulteration in nineteenth-century France. Enterprise & Society 8(2): 375-412.

[13] Haydu, J.and Skotnicki, T. 2016. Three layers of history in recurrent social movements: the case of food reform. Social Movement Studies 15(4): 345-360.

[14] Fair Trade USA. Capture Fisheries Program. 10pp. Accessed 26 March, 2017.

[15] Holt-Giméénez, E. and Wang, Y. 2011. Reform or transformation? The pivotal role of food justice in the U.S. food movement. Race/Ethnicity: Multidisciplinary Global Contexts 5(1): 83-102.

[16] Gutiérrez, A.T. and Morgan, S.K. 2015. The influence of the Sustainable Seafood Movement in the US and UK capture fisheries supply chain and fisheries governance. Frontiers in Marine Science 2: art. 72.

[17] Raynolds, L.T. 2000. Re-embedding global agriculture: The international organic and fair trade movements. Agriculture and Human Values 17(3): 297-309.

[18] Campbell, L.M. et al. 2014. From vegetable box to seafood cooler: Applying the community-supported agriculture model to fisheries. Society and Natural Resources 27(1): 88-106.

[19] Beaver, W. 2016. Fast-food unionization. Society 53(5): 469-473.

[20] Beulens et al., op cit.

[21] Golden, J.S. et al. 2010. Sustainable product indexing: navigating the challenge of ecolabeling. Ecology and Society 15(3): art. 8.

[22] Jacquet, J. et al. 2010. Conserving wild fish in a sea of market-based efforts. Oryx 44(1): 45-56.

[23] Haydu and Skotnicki, op cit.

[24] Schiefer, G. and Deiters, J. (Eds.). 2013. Transparency in the Food Chain. International Center for Food Chain and Network Research, University of Bonn, Germany. 369pp.

[25] GlobeScan. 2017. Trust and Transparency In the Supply Chain. GlobeScan eBrief. 5pp.

[26] ibid.

[27] Bailey, M. and Egels-Zandén, N. 2016. Transparency for just seafood systems. Solutions 7(4): 66-73.

[28] Bell, J. and Mollenkopf, D. 2016. Building a Transparent Supply Chain – Best Practices: How To Enhance Sustainable Supply Chain Efforts Through Transparency. Innovations in Supply Chain 3. Global Supply Chain Institute, University of Tennessee Haslam College of Business. 40pp.

[29] McCauley, D.J. et al. 2016. Ending hide and seek at sea. Science 351(6278): 1148-1150.

[30] Österblom, H. et al. 2016. Where and how to prioritize fishery reform? Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113(25): E3473-E3474.

[31] Miller, D.D. and Mariani, S. 2010. Smoke, mirrors, and mislabeled cod: poor transparency in the European seafood industry. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 8(10): 517-521.

[32] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). 2010. Page 105 in: State of the World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2010. FAO, Rome.

[33] Fisheries and Aquaculture Department, FAO. Global Record of Fishing Vessels, Refrigerated Transport Vessels and Supply Vessels. accessed on February 25, 2017.

[34] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). 2010. State of the World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2010. FAO, Rome. 197pp.

[35] Kroodsma, D.A. et al. 2017. The Global View of Transshipment: Preliminary Findings. Global Fishing Watch and SkyTruth. 18pp.

[36] Malarky, L.and Lowell, B. 2017. No More Hiding at Sea: Transshipping Exposed. Oceana, Washington, 14pp.

[37] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). 2014. The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2014: Opportunities and Challenges. FAO, Rome. 221pp.

[38] Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act; Seafood Import Monitoring Program, 15 C.F.R. § 902 2016 and 50 CFR Parts 300 and 600 2016.

[39] Environmental Justice Foundation, Oceana, The Pew Charitable Trusts and WWF. 2016. The EU IUU Regulation: Building on success. EU progress in the global fight against illegal fishing. 19pp.

[40] Mol, op cit.

[41] Bailey, M. et al. 2016. The role of traceability in transforming seafood governance in the global South. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 18: 25-32.

[42] Naaum, A.M. et al. 2016. Seafood mislabeling incidence and impacts. In: Seafood Authenticity and Traceability: A DNA-based Pespective: 19-27. Naaum, A. and Hanner, R. (Eds.). Elsevier.

[43] El Sheikha, A.F. and Xu, J. 2017. Traceability as a key of seafood safety: Reassessment and possible applications. Reviews in Fisheries Science & Aquaculture 25(2): 158-170.

[44] Toonen, H.M. and Mol, A.P.J. 2016 Governing the marine environment through information: fisheries, shipping, and tourism. In: Science, Information, and Policy Interface for Effective Coastal and Ocean Management: 125-152. MacDonald, B.H., Soomai, S.S., De Santo, E.M. and Wells, P.G. (Eds.). CRC Press, Boca Raton.

[45] Karlsen, K.M. and Olsen, P. 2016. Problems and implementation hurdles in food traceability. In: Advances in Food Traceability Techniques and Technologies: 35-46. Espiñeira, M. and Santaclara, S.J. (Eds.). Woodhead Publishing/Elsevier.

[46] Trienekens, J.H. et al. 2012. Transparency in complex dynamic food supply chains. Advanced Engineering Informatics 26(1): 55-65.

[47] Schiefer and Deiters, op cit.

[48] Wognum, P.M. et al. 2011. Systems for sustainability and transparency of food supply chains – Current status and challenges. Advanced Engineering Informatics 25(1): 65-76.

[49] Marvin, H.J.P. et al. 2017. Big data in food safety: An overview. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition 57(11): 2286-2295.

[50] Berg, C. et al. 2014. How IT can enable sustainability throughout supply chains. In: Beyond Sustainability: 184-202. Scholz, C. and Zentes, J. (Eds.). Nomos, Baden-Baden.

[51] Lorbiecki, M. 2016. The race to trace — the need for traceability in the food & beverage industry. (online): 26 April.

[52] Cubero-Leon, E. et al. 2014. Review on metabolomics for food authentication. Food Research International 60: 95-107.

[53] Martinsohn, J. Th. 2011. Deterring Illegal Activities in the Fisheries Sector – Genetics, Genomics, Chemistry and Forensics to Fight IUU Fishing and in Support of Fish Product Traceability. European Commission Joint Research Centre Reference Report. Ispra, Italy. 72pp.

[54] Danezis, G.P. et al. 2016. Food authentication: state of the art and prospects. Current Opinion in Food Science 10: 22-31.

[55] McMeekin, T.A. et al. 2006. Information systems in food safety management. International Journal of Food Microbiology 112: 181-194.

[56] Gale, F. et al. 2017. Sensing reality? New monitoring technologies for global sustainability standards. Global Environmental Politics 17(2): 65-83.

[57] Dabbs, A. 2017. What can blockchain do for the environment? Ensia (online): 26 January.

[58] Corneliussen, S.T. 2017. Does blockchain portend a “fourth industrial revolution”? Physics Today (online): 13 March.

[59] Levitt, T. 2016. Blockchain technology trialled to tackle slavery in the fishing industry. Guardian (online): 7 September.

[60] Bhatt, T. et al. Project to develop an interoperable seafood traceability technology architecture: Issues brief. Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety 15(2): 392-429.

[61] Hemphill, T.A. and Kelley, K.J. 2016. Socially responsible global supply chains: The human rights promise of shared responsibility and ISO 45001. Journal of Global Responsibility 7(2): 163-180.

[62] Mena, S. and Palazzo, G. 2012. Input and output legitimacy of multi-stakeholder initiatives. Business Ethics Quarterly 22(3): 527-556

[63] Shrivastava, P. and Guimarães-Costa, N. 2017. Achieving environmental sustainability: The case for multi-layered collaboration across disciplines and players. Technological Forecasting and Social Change 116: 340-346.

[64] Steele, B. and Feyerherm, A. 2014. Loblaw sustainable seafood: transforming the seafood supply chain through network development and collaboration. In: Building Networks and Partnerships: 101-132. Worley, C.G. and Mirvis, P.H. (Eds.). Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Bingley, U.K.

[65] Reuter, C. et al. 2010. Sustainable global supplier management: the role of dynamic capabilities in achieving competitive advantage. Journal of Supply Chain Management 46(2):.45-63.

[66] Pagell, M. and Wu, Z. 2009. Building a more complete theory of sustainable supply chain management using case studies of 10 exemplars. Journal of Supply Chain Management 45(2): 37-56

[67] Bell and Mollenkopf D., op cit.

[68] Nielsen. 2015. The Sustainability Narrative: New Insights On Consumer Expectations. The Nielsen Company, New York. 17pp.

[69] Doorey, D.J. 2011. The transparent supply chain: from resistance to implementation at Nike and Levi-Strauss. Journal of Business Ethics 103(4): 587-603.

[70] Donnelly, K.A.-M. et al. 2013. Following the mackerel – Cost and benefits of improved information exchange in food supply chains. Food Control 33(1): 25-31.

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