Choice editing and the role of regulators

When I started my business as a frozen seafood importer, I was driven by the idea of creating a company in line with my values: we would supply products we are proud of, adhering to our ethical beliefs. However, I quickly realized that the challenge was much greater than I thought. The reality was that my colleagues and I are informed consumers, aware of what quality seafood is. On the contrary, most of our end consumers are making decision based merely on price.

Now, the world of frozen seafood is a very tricky one: producers and importers are never lacking creativity in finding ways to lower down the price of their products or at least giving the illusion of it. Would you believe me if I told you that the main ingredient imported in frozen seafood is not fish… but water? One of the most common practices in the industry is to add a layer of ice around the product. Initially, a thin layer of ice, counting for barely 3% of the product’s weight, was added to protect the fish from the effect of “freezer burn” which affects the taste and texture of the product. Nowadays, in order to compensate for the constantly increasing costs of raw material, the wide majority of frozen shrimps sold in the UK through small independent retailers contain 30% to 50% of water. While net weights are clearly stated on the packaging, UK consumers still go for the cheapest product regardless of the water content.

Shrimp on ice blockThis results in even more unsustainable supply practices pushing consumption, lowering down quality standards, and increasing energy use and GHG emissions. In order to add that much water to a shrimp, a factory has to freeze it two to three times in a row, adding a new layer of water each time resulting in as much additional energy consumption. Also, considering that farmed shrimps are mostly, if not exclusively, produced in tropical climates, transport-related carbon emissions for those products are 40% higher than they should be.

As a company, we have consistently refused to go down that path and promoted products free of unnecessary ice.  While fishmongers, who sell shrimps defrosted and therefore are technically sensitive, responded well to our approach, we did not sell one bag of frozen shrimp to Cash and Carry stores or independent grocery shops! They would not buy a product without enough water added to reach their target price. Choice editing might be an option for large retailers or well-established companies with relatively captive customers, but it is very challenging for smallholders who can only have a marginal effect on market trends, especially in a very scattered market made of small independent retailers.

In this specific context, one can wonder why regulators aren’t taking necessary measures to protect consumers and limit unsustainable production, which is also referred to as “citizen choice editing”. The general opinion to rely on businesses to bring more sustainable products to the consumers is valid to a certain extent but for some markets, the main driver of change is the policy makers who have the power to guide stakeholders to more sensible practices.