A test that just got underway at two grocery stores will allow seafood consumers to trace back the fillet in their hand to the fisherman who caught it and the port that processed it. The hope is to strengthen the impulse to “buy local.”
The new tracking tools may also cut fraud when farmed fish are sold as wild-caught. Correspondent Tom Banse reports from a grocery in Portland.
Here’s how it works. The frozen tuna packages in this high-tech grocery freezer case all carry an extra bar code. You pick out your fillet and then you can swipe the label under a scanner. The barcode activates a short video on a flat panel TV screen above the freezer case.
Grocery customer Hailey Harkema watches a demonstration at an upscale Portland grocery. First, the video shows the fisherman who caught the fish she’s now holding. He poses in front of his boat and mugs for the camera.
Hailey Harkema: “Tommy Nelson, there he is. That’s terrific, and Newport, Oregon, I like it.”
A flashing circle on a map shows where in the ocean off Newport the tuna was hooked. Finally, there are pictures of the fish being filleted at a processor onshore.
Hailey Harkema: “Wow.”
Harkema says it’s important to her family to know where their seafood comes from.
Hailey Harkema: “We certainly pay attention to where it comes from and who catches it and what region it’s in. So we often don’t buy fish because we don’t know where it comes from.”
But what if the piece of fish costs a little bit more so you can see who caught it and where the boat was when the fish was hooked? She has to think hard about that.
Hailey Harkema: “I would pay some extra, yes. Yeah, I would.”
That’s the answer fisherman Paul Stannard hopes to hear. He looks his part — plaid shirt, grey mustache and glasses. Stannard is one of three Newport, Oregon fishers who contributed albacore tuna to this market trial. His tuna were tagged and carefully tracked from the ocean to the grocery store.
Paul Stannard: “I just want to catch ‘em, is all I want to do, you know. If it helps me market them, then I’m all for it.”
Tom Banse: "Do you think your face sells fish?"
Paul Stannard: “Well, I don’t know. We’ll find out I guess.”
The idea for the fish origin kiosks was inspired by the owner of grocery store chain in the Midwest. Oregon State University seafood specialist Jeff Feldner says the innovation sprouted in the produce aisle.
Jeff Feldner: “When customers came through his store with lettuce or carrots or whatever they had, when they went through the checkout counter and scanned it there was a little monitor on the checkout counter and a picture popped up of the farmer that grew the lettuce. It was just like light bulbs came on in my head and said, ‘Why not do this with fish?’”
The result is a project known formally as Pacific Fish Trax. The consumer test was supposed to start with ocean-caught salmon. But because the West Coast commercial salmon fishing season was so dismal last summer, local albacore tuna is being featured instead.
A grant from the state of Oregon is paying for the technology development.
Jeff Feldner says by making a virtual connection between the fisherman and the consumer, more people may be inclined to “buy local.”
Jeff Feldner: “People are interested in this. Let’s show it to them. And maybe it will help us market local fish.”
Improved traceability of fish fillets could have a secondary benefit. It might make it harder to pass off farmed fish as the more desirable wild kind.
Jeff Feldner: “With those species that we do genetics on, where the traceability goes that far back, we can actually verify where the fish came from.”
This test with the traceable tuna is running for just a few weeks in two New Seasons Market locations in Portland. Then the pilot project relocates to fish stores in Newport, Oregon.
After that, the instigators will decide if there’s sufficient consumer interest to keep going. If so, Oregon State will try to license the technology to retailers or an independent marketing company.
Jeff Feldner does not expect to see interactive kiosks in every grocery store someday, probably just higher end or service-oriented chains.
Initial deployment of the Pacific Fish Trax kiosks can be viewed in Portland at two New Seasons Market locations – in Cedar Hills (3495 Cedar Hills Blvd.) and Arbor Lodge (6400 N. Interstate).