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Seafood quality: issues for consumer researchers.

Benefits of seafood consumption have been discussed extensively over the last decade. Concurrently, many issues regarding the quality of the seafood supply have arisen. In many ways, the seafood industry of today is similar to the meat industry at the turn of the century. While today's industry exposes may come from a television set, rather than a book, the impact is similar. Negative news brings a decline in sales; consumer advocates and industry groups representing sellers of high quality products, such as the National Fisheries Institute, call for government intervention to provide protection from unsafe products (Talley 1989). Examples of such policies include a federal grading system, mandatory seafood inspection, and restructuring the seafood industry to encourage private brand names, labeling, and quality control. In evaluating alternative public policies, it would be prudent first to carefully evaluate the problems in the seafood marketing system which have lead to these quality losses.

The purpose of this paper is to review the issues surrounding seafood quality, to compare the present situation to historical developments in other food industries, to evaluate market failures in the industry, and to suggest how alternative public policies would improve the seafood distribution system and lead to higher quality products. Both fresh and processed products will be discussed.



Benefits of seafood consumption have been emphasized repeatedly in the past decade. Seafood has been promoted by nutritionists and the media as the health food of the 1980s. Although the seafood industry itself has been slow to promote seafood's healthfulness, most consumers are aware of its nutritional value. Seafood is high in protein, vitamins A, D, and Bs; minerals; and cholesterol-reducing Omega-3 fatty acids. The additional benefits of preventing heart disease, lowering blood pressure, and supplying eicosapentaenoic acid (DHA)--fatty acids which are generally recognized as the main biologically active components of fish lipids--are less well-known. Epidemiological data and clinical trials have shown that lipid intake from the consumption of fish has improved the symptoms and/or caused remission of angina pectoris, asthma, atherosclerosis, arthritis, inflammation, psoriasis, thrombosis, multiple sclerosis, tumor growth, a number of autoimmune diseases, and can aid brain and eye development in children (Nettleton 1987; Kinsella 1988). People who regularly eat fish have been shown to have a lower probability of heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, bronchial asthma, psoriasis, and have fewer cases of certain cancers (Nettleton 1987).

A recent report of the Joint Nutrition Monitoring Evaluation Committee (JNMEC) (Joint Nutrition Monitoring Evaluation Committee 1986) states that the six highest priority nutrition problems related to food consumption are excessive consumption of kilocalories, total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, and alcohol. Seafood consumption can help control many of these problems and provides a healthy alternative for consumers.

Consumption of Seafood

For a variety of reasons--health, economics, changing lifestyles, population growth--Americans are consuming more fish (Vondruska, Otwell, and Martin 1988). Although it is estimated that American consumers spend $15 billion annually on seafood, about four percent of their food budgets, seafood consumption lags behind consumption of other animal protein such as beef and poultry (Miller 1985; Morse 1987). Per capita seafood consumption in 1989 was 15.9 pounds, a 35 percent increase in the last 20 years (U.S. Department of Commerce 1990). Per capita consumption in 1989 was 111 pounds for red meat and 60 pounds for poultry (Dunham 1990). The increase in seafood consumption has occurred despite the fact that the price index for seafood has risen faster than any other animal food commodity over the same time period. While the price index for meat and poultry have each risen approximately 12 percent between 1982 and 1988, the price index for seafood has increased more than three times as much (37.4 percent) over the same time period (Dunham 1990).

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditure Survey (U.S. Department of Labor 1990) reveal that consumers in the Northeast and West spend more ($90 and $77 per household, respectively) than consumers in the Midwest ($53) and South ($54). This survey also indicates that seafood is consumed most heavily by households with high incomes, headed by persons in the 45-54 age group. Some researchers (Koo 1990; Ching 1986; Wendt 1986) have begun to explore several aspects of seafood consumption, yet many questions remain unanswered.

Concern for Seafood Quality

Unfortunately, along with the many positive messages consumers have received about seafood, media also created an awareness of some of the problems associated with seafood consumption. Most recently, concerns that have been highly publicized include high mercury content in swordfish and tuna, polychlorinated biphenols (PCBs) in fatty fish such as bluefish and striped bass, contamination by heavy metals, hepatitis virus in shellfish taken from polluted waters, as well as outbreaks of food poisoning from food-borne disease organisms such as Salmonella.

Although consumers view fish as a nutritional food, media reports such as those cited raise concerns about seafood quality. For example, following a story on television in West Germany on parasite infestation of North Sea fish, consumption fell 50 to 80 percent (Burros 1987). In the northeast Atlantic region, a food-borne illness caused hospitalization of 135 persons and two deaths from eating cultivated mussels from Prince Edward Island in December 1987 (Seafood Business 1988). Although the disease was related to a natural toxin, domoic acid from certain marine algae, the event resulted in a temporary shutdown of the regional industry and adverse impacts on consumption of shellfish.

In the summer of 1988, coastal pollution became front-page news. Beaches were closed when hospital and sewage wastes were found. The cover story in a major newsweekly described the environmental contamination throughout the coastal regions of the United States. Reports detailed closed or contaminated fisheries in Texas, Louisiana, the Hudson River area, Boston, New York, and the Chesapeake Bay. Warnings about oysters, lobsters, crabs, and English sole were relayed (Morgantheau et al. 1988). Consumers, unable to evaluate the safety of selected seafood, reacted with "an indiscriminate rejection of all fish" (Burros 1988, C1). Although health officials have warned that such a withdrawal is unwarranted, in certain markets seafood sales fell dramatically in the summer of 1988 (Burros 1988).

Economic damage from this negative publicity has not yet been quantified. However, one piece of statistical evidence on the impact of these events is available. In 1988, seafood consumption fell to 15.0 pounds per person (USDC 1990). This decline, the first in six years, caused widespread concern in the seafood industry (Manges 1989). How much of this decrease is attributable to consumer concerns about seafood quality and safety remains open to investigation.

Consumer concern about food safety escalated with media reports implicating the chemical Alar used in apple production as a leading carcinogen in children's diets. Although subsequent studies indicate that Alar is no longer a major containment in the food supply (Consumer Reports 1990), the apple industry was negatively impacted by this publicity. Within weeks, several Chilean grapes were found to be tainted with cyanide. Citizens were left wondering if anything is safe to eat. This question was echoed by a major newsweekly with the cover story "How Safe is Your Food?" in which the limited nature of seafood inspection was highlighted (Beck et al. 1989). In a related story, the toxic dangers associated with seafood consumption--PCBs; the pesticides: DDT, chlordane, aldrin, dieldrin, toxaphene; and more than 100 other compounds found in industrial wastes--were recounted (Begley and Hager 1989). The authors cited a study in the American Journal of Public Health which warns:

eating 150 meals a year, as a sports fisherman might, poses a one in 100 cancer risk from dieldrin and three in 1000 from DDT if the fish contain the action levels of these poisons (22).

In addition, risks of bacterial and viral infections from seafood consumption were discussed. A poll conducted in March 1989 revealed that 25 percent of consumers are worried about or have cut their purchases of seafood (Begley and Hager 1989).

Consumeers desire high quality, safe seafood. This was emphasized by consumers who participated in a focus group sponsored by the Food Marketing Institute in 1981 (Miklos). "Consistently across all panels, many of the men and women revealed a prevalent fear and serious concern about food-borne illness from fish" (Miklos 1981, 25). The study revealed that quality is an important issue for seafood consumers. Respondents claimed they demanded and required more assurance and proof of seafood's freshness. Consumers stated that they utilized a different, and more stringent, definition for freshness than for other protein sources.


Consumers are concerned with obtaining safe, high quality seafood. Although from the technical perspective of the food scientist, safety and quality have different meanings, the terms are often used synonymously by consumers as well as the media. The quality of seafood is assessed, as with other fresh products, by appearance, odor, flavor, and texture. Safety issues relate to illness or death caused by consumption of a contaminated food product. Yet, in contrast to a food scientist, consumers would be unlikely to describe seafood with a low risk of illness or death as high quality even if the smell, appearance, flavor, and texture were perfect. For purposes of this paper, safety will be treated as a quality issue.

Quality Is Multidimensional

Seafood quality is one of the major issues in the seafood industry today. A freshly harvested fish, either wild-caught or aquacultured, has the potential to lose quality in a myriad of ways. Seafood quality is a multidimensional attribute--nutritional value; incidence of parasites; presence of micro-organisms and bacteria; shelf life; taste; level of additives, irradiation, pesticides, or preservatives; amount of discoloration; size; number of bones; number of scars or cuts; uniformity; odor; and a host of other factors may be used to define quality. In addition, as seafood ages, its quality deteriorates more rapidly than other protein sources such as chicken and red meat.

To further complicate this definability problem, seafood quality lies in the eye of the beholder. Different aspect of quality are important to different users. Quality to a chef at a white tablecloth restaurant, a Japanese fish trader, an American consumer (eating at home), a buyer for a fast food chain, a fish trader in Ecuador, a feed manufacturer, a food scientist, and a nutritionist may be defined quite differently. Quality depends on the needs of the user, which are determined by user knowledge, available technology, and use of the product. Thus it is unlikely that a consensus can be obtained on the most importatn quality characteristics. One may, however, be able to identify the quality characteristics most important to a specifically defined consumer group.

Consumer Difficulty in Assessing Seafood Quality

The quality attributes previously mentioned can be separated into broader categories determined by the consumer's ability to gather consumer information. These include those the consumer: (1) can discern visually such as flesh discoloration or size, (2) can detect by smelling such as odor, (3) can discover by eating such as taste and number of bones, (4) cannot discern until after the product has been consumed, if then, such as incidence of parasites, bacterial level, or presence of additives or preservatives which cause an allergic reaction, and (5) will never be able to determine without outside assistance such as nutritional value of additives, preservatives, and pesticides or residues which may have a cumulative effect. As one moves down this categorization, quality attributes become increasingly difficult to discern until even the most educated consumer cannot find the necessary information without assistance. Further, quality attributes which are most important to the consumer's health and safety are the very ones which are most difficult for the consumer to discover.

In consumer economics literature, product attributes related to the consumer's effort to find information have been classified as search, experience, or credence characteristics. Search characteristics (Stigler 1961) are those for which consumers can seek relevant information prior to purchase. They are quality characteristics the consumer can see and smell and about which one can gather prepurchase information.

Alternatively, the consumer can use experience to determine the quality of goods by purchasing and using them (Nelson 1970). Experience characteristics are those for which "the consumer gains knowledge by purchasing the product, using it and deciding whether or not to buy that brand again" (Swagler 1979, 93). Attributes such as taste and texture are experience characteristics. Experience as a source of consumer information functions most efficiently when the consumer has brand-name cues to rely upon. This is rarely the case in the seafood market, especially the market for fresh fish. Costs to the consumer of obtaining product quality information for unbranded seafood are higher than for other product categories where brand names are prevalent because information gained through a particular trial has no future application.

Credence characteristics (Darby and Karni 1973) are those which the consumer cannot evaluate even after the seafood is consumed without incurring prohibitively high information costs. "Consumers are particularly vulnerable because they are unable to obtain the information needed to protect themselves" (Swagler 1979, 94). Seafood quality characteristics most important to the consumer's health and safety such as contamination levels, presence of additives, and nutritional content fall into the credence category. Nutritional labeling if accurate, can transform nutritional content from a credence characteristics into a search characteristics. For most credence attributes laboratory testing is necessary to provide valid consumer information.

For credence characteristics, consumers tend to rely upon knowledge and experience of others as a proxy for the ability to evaluate the products themselves. In the seafood market, consumers use experiences, their own and those of others, combined with a reliance on retailers' reputation and knowledge to simulate information about credence characteristics. Research (Bisogni, Ryan, and Regenstein 1986) has shown that may consumers rely primarily on a store's reputation to assess seafood quality.

Market Failure and Quality Losses

Many factors can contribute to seafood quality losses. These may include technological problems, infrasturcture inadequacy, cultural practices, or socioeconomic factors. This section will focus on the latter. For a detailed discussion of production-oriented problems which lead to quality losses, see Anderson and Anderson (1988).

The root causes of many quality losses can be found in socioeconomic factors which cause market inefficiency. Theoretically, in order to function efficiently a market must be purely competitive. A purely competitive market is characterized by many buyers and sellers, free mobility of resources, homogeneous products, free entry and exit of firms, property rights that are clearly defined, and all market participants possessing complete and perfect knowledge. Under these hypothetical circumstances, seafood quality losses would not exist. This is, of course, not the case. The important issue is how do seafood markets deviate from the ideal and how great are the costs of these inefficiencies?

Lack of accountability

The average seafood consumer would find it difficult to learn where a given pice of fish was caught and pocessed. Most fish sold in fish stores or supermarkets carry no identifying brands or lables. Unless the product is blatantly spoiled, a consumer is unlikely to know, much less complain about, poor quality. If a severe quality problem arises, the consumer may give up all fish consumption. In most cases consumers will try another store or fish species in search of better quality. However, unlike other food products where standards exist to give consumers cues to quality, variation in seafood seems far more randomly distributed.

Accountability in the seafood industry could be improved through use of brand names and labeling. In the market for fresh seafood, brand names are rarely seen. There are several reasons for this. The industry is characgterized by the presence of many small firms who cannot afford to invest in the mechanisms needed to promote a brand name. Additionally, because most fish is wild-caught, volatility in catch leads to significant variation in supply. A reliable, consistent product supply is a necessary condition for branding.

Seafood cooperatives, vertically integrated firms, and aquaculture may make brand names more common in the future. These strategies have been effective in the aquacultured catfish industry where brand names are common and quality is high. In this industry, with its highly controlled product, sales volume has increased rapidly (Barnett 1987). Even sellers of wild-caught products are beginning to recognize the value of brand names. A high quality processor in Boston has begun to brand its product "hoping that consumers will feel better knowing where their fish is coming from" (Manges 1989, B1). Although branding fish is more difficult than branding processed seafood products, it is not impossible. Seafood is transported in boxes or containers which carry the name and location of the seller, processor, or distributor. If a fresh seafood product is sold in a package, a brand name can be provided in the same manner as is done in the poultry industry. A product sold from the counter can be labeled in the display case with seller's name and location. In addition, labels providing this information can be put in or on the product when it is wrapped.


Many of the most important quality features of seafood are unobservable, thus the real world consumer cannot be perfectly informed as is the theoretical consumer. Except for those characteristics which the consumer can see, and in some cases smell, most of the characteristics of seafood cannot be determined before purchase.

In a market, such as seafood, characterized by indistinguishable high and low quality products sold side-by-side an interesting phenomena occurs. The high quality seller/producer can extract a premium price for an identified superior product from the consumer who is willing to pay more for the premium product. However, the high quality seller must find a way to differentiate its product from the low quality product and make the consumer aware of its product. In this endeavor, the high quality seller and the consumer are allies, both seeking a high quality product, both acknowledging, perhaps begrudgingly on the consumer's part, that such a product will command a premium price as well. In this alliance, interests and goals of the high quality seller and the high quality consumer are very much distinct from the low quality, low price seller.

The lack of observability of many seafood quality characteristics coupled with a lack of accountability among seafood traders can lead to market inefficiency and a disparity between product quality attributes supplied and those desired (demanded). Lack of observability and accountability creates a common property problem resulting from competition for the stock of buyer goodwill in an undifferentiated fish market. Providing the lowest quality fish within the acceptable range does not yield lower prices in the very short run and the lower buyer goodwill resulting from consuming lower quality fish is absorbed by all participants in later periods. The low quality fish supplier causes all sellers to bear the long-run cost of lower buyer goodwill. Therefore, even if costs of higher quality fish were negligible, there is no reason for an individual producer to supply a presale/unobservable high quality characteristic if in the short run a price premium will not be received. If accountability were improved through market cues such as branding or labeling, the external cost of supplying low quality seafood would be internalized and the effects of the observability problem would be minimized.

Poor understanding of buyer needs and preferences

Sellers of seafood have remarkably little understanding of buyers' needs and preferences. Although consumer preferences have been studied by food scientists (Hamilton and Bennett 1983), little empirical research has been done to determine which quality characteristics are most important to consumers. The focus group study mentioned earlier, while not providing generalizable findings, provides some exploratory information. Consumers prefer fresh fish with delicate flavor and light meat, seafood from saltwater which is sold in coastal areas. They perceive fish as extremely perishable, are concerned about food-borne illness, and do not believe high quality fish can be found at the supermarket. The seafood demanded by different cultures, different market levels, and different market segments needs to be well understood in order to maximize gains from an improved seafood quality system. Objective research can help satisfy the needs of the American seafood consumer.

Some studies have been doen to explore the food safety issues with which consumers are most concerned. Van Ravenswaay noted in a summary of this research, "while much has been written on the subject of food safety" (1986, 89). It can be concluded from this summary that consumers are most concerned about preservatives, additives, and pesticide residues and less concerned about bacterial contamination even though the actual risk to consumers is far greater from the latter (van Ravenswaay 1986).

Consumers' Knowledge of Seafood

Bisogni, Ryan, and Regenstein (1986) indicate that consumers know very little about how to select high quality fish. Lack of knowledge on the part of consumers regarding parasites, nutrition, sanitation, and other handling techniques can also contribute to quality losses. If quality fish are sold in a market where consumers are not knowledgeable, prive premiums will not result and, in the long run, high quality fish will not be supplied. During negative media coverage of seafood quality an additional problem may occur. Unknowledgeable consumers unable to differentiate safe from unsafe species may abandon the market, unfairly rejecting even high quality products. Resources are wasted simply because buyers are unaware of the value of quality or they do not know how to use the resource. This leads to the implication that consumer education and informative grades and standards will improve demand for higher quality seafood and reduce both physical and economic quality losses.



Quality issues in the seafood market today closely parallel issues that other food industry groups dealt with in the past, some as long as a century ago. Three of these issues will be addressed in this section.

Food Adulteration and Fraud

In the late 1800s, consumers angrily protested the techniques used to process and preserve meat products. Concern for additives arose over the use of formaldehyde as a preservative for canned meats that were shipped across country (Herrmann 1970). Also at that time, concern for adulterated food first arose. These were products that both decieved the consumer who paid real food prices for imitation products and cheated farmers and others dealing in natural or unadulterated products. The government responded by levying taxes on the adulterated or imitation products.

The impetus behind these measures came not from consumers, whose interests would have been protected by merely requiring truthful labeling rather than by raising prices. Rather it came from farmers whose markets were being invaded by the cheaper substitutes. (Nadel 1971, 8). Sellers who preferred not to adulterate may have been forced to do so to meet the prices of unscrupulous competitors (Feldman 1976).

Today, widespread subsititution of "surimi" products for more expensive seafoods has been criticized by consumer and nutrition advocates. Surimi is made from inexpensive, white-flesh fish, sugar, sorbitol, salt, polyphosphates, egg whites, and modified starches. To give the appearance of other seafood, flavoring and colors are added. In final form, surimi may resemble and taste like crab, lobster, or other seafood. This highly processes product is less nutritious than uprocesses fish. The processing removes B-vitamins, Omega-3 fatty acids, potassium, and protein, while adding calories and six to ten times the original sodium. Yet the limited consumer research done appears to indicate that consumers do not know what surimi is and are likely to mistake it for shellfish. Much surimi is sold unlabeled at delicatessen counter and in restaurants at prices which far exceed the cost of production (Montgomery 1987).

Another form of adulteration common today in the industry is the practice of dipping fish products in chemical solutions for the purpose of slowing bacterial growth, extending shelf life, and improving product appearance. This is done for several types of seafood including shrimp. To monimize bacteria count, shrimp are rountinely dipped in a sulfite solution to prevent black spots, called melanosis, from forming. To assist consumers who are allergic to sulfities, tests are conducted to detect their presence. These tests may take several days. In the meantime, truckloads of shrimp are held while quality deteriorates (Graddy 1988).

As seafood demand has increased in the 1980s, the incidence of fraud in the industry has increased as well. Three types of economic fraud are prevalent: (1) substituting an inferior product for one that sells at a higher pricem, (2) delivering inferior quality or size, and (3) short-weighting (Dore 1989). In a recent investigation by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and National Marine Fisheries Services (NMFS) These problems and other received front page coverage in The Wall Street Journal. Mislabeling of species and harvesting of shellfish from sewage-polluted waters revealed to the publc (Ingersol 1989).

At the turn the centry, Congress passed the Food and Drug Act of 1906 in response to public demand for pure food. The bill listed 11 specific chemical additives that were prohibited outright and required that any other chemical used had to be given on the label or package. However, this and its successor, the Foods and Drug Act of 1939, which required specific labeling of packaged food products, only covered products which the FDA is empowered to regulate. Under federal law, meat and poultry sales are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), domestic seafood falls under the supervision of the Department of Commerce, and the Food and Drug Administration is empowered to regulate imported seafood.

Unsanitary Processing and Need for Government Inspection

At the beginning of the 20th century, filthy conditions in the meat processing industry were exposed by muckrakers in the popular press. None was as effective as Upton Sinclair (1906), a socialist seeking to described the horrors factory workers confronted on a daily basis.

These rats were nuisances, and the packers would put poisoined bread out for them and they would die, and then rats, bread, and meat would go into the hoppers together (53).

Consumers reacted with horror, not to the plight of the dismembered or deceased laborers as Sinclair intended, but with revulsion regarding the quality of the food they were consuming.

Sales of meat products had dropped by half and it appeared that important European markets might be lost. Fearful that these losses might be permanent, the packers began to realize that a strengthened system of federal inspection was the only way to save their reputations (Herrmann 1970, 7).

The Meat Inspection Act was passed, mandating a nationwide system for USDA regulation of meat shipped in interstate commerce (Feldman 1976).

Today, despite the fact that "many seafood plants are 'almost like dumps'" (Ingersoll 1988, 1), most of the 1,900 seafood processing facilities are not required to be inspected as those processing beef and poultry. However, several inspection programs exist. The FDA, which is responsible for checking the 2.9 billion pounds of seafood imported each year, inspects about five percent of the seafood. Some consumer advocates consider this inadequate. In most seafood processing plants, FDA inspectors "stop by every three to four years" but little enforcement action is taken (Ingersoll 1988). The Department of Commerce has a voluntary inspection program which inspected only 11 percent of the seafood consumed in the United States in 1987 (Ingersoll 1988). Many states have their own inspection programs but no federal standards for inspection or grading have been established. Several bills proposing a nationwide seafood inspection program, have been introduced in Congress in the past few years, but to date none has passed.

In the 1990 session of Congress, seven alternative seafood inspection bills were presented. (H.R. 2511, H.R. 3508, and H. R. 3155 were the leading contenders in the fall of 1990.) Unlike previous attempts to pass such legislation, this time a coalition of industry and consumer grounds worked together to promote passage of a mandatory seafood inspection system.

The National Fisheries Institute is leading the charge for the seafood industry, taking a "proactive" stance rather than a defensive posture. In fact, the industry and the consumer group Public Voice for Food and Health Policy, often at odds with each other, find themselves in general agreement this time. Both groups want a mandatory seafood inspection program within the USDA, based on Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points principles, with no user fees, and for domestic and imported seafood. The main point of disagreement is over inspecting all fishing vessels (which Public Voice wants) and inspecting processing vessels (which NFI wants) (Tally 1989, 4).

There are still "a lot of questions about the need for inspection, and, if it is needed, what form it should take" (Stevens 1989, 30).

Many questions surround the seafood inspection issue. Which regulatory agency should inspect seafood? At what stage of the production process (boat, plant, retail) should the product be inspected? Should all seafood or random samples be inspected? Who should pay for the program? How will consumers be made aware that seafood has been inspected?

Consumer Assurances of Product Quality

The issue of assuring consumers of product quality has existed in the food industry since mass production techniques and a nationwide transportation network combined to ensure that virtually never would the producer and consumer of a food product meet face to face. Separation of buyer and seller encouraged the selling of inferior products to maximize profits. To combat this, sellers looked for ways to assure consumers of quality. The first use of brand names was early in the Industrial Revolution, thus allowing satified customers to repeat their purchase with ease. Advertising of brand names told consumers of the existence of quality products and encouraged development of brand loyalty. The poultry industry has met with enormous success using brand names and advertising (combined with a highly controlled production process) (Barnett 1987). Processed red meats have developed brand-name recognition to a lesser degree. Even non-processed red meat producers are beginning to sell branded products (e.g., Excel). Yet in the seafood industry, except for canned and frozen products, few brand names are seen on the shelves or in advertisements.

Offering a guarantee of consumer satisfaction is another way of assuring consumers of quality. This too has been done by other protein industries but is dependent upon the presence of an existing and available brand name.

Other sellers of fresh commodities use government programs to assure consumers of quality. Grades and standards have existed for most produce and protein products for decades. However, in these industries, grading programs have been more effective in facilitating wholesale trade and sellers' interests than in providing consumer information. Inspectors have focused on aesthetic characteristics such as size, color, and flawlessness while ignoring characteristics related to nutrition and safety. For example, in the beef market, grades are based on fat content while consumers may be interested in protein or iron content. In the fruit and vegetable market, products are judged on appearance and size, even though consumers may wish to know sugar level, vitamin content, or what chemicals had been sprayed on the products. If a mandatory seafood grading system is proposed, evaluation of the costs and benefits to consumers from alternative systems will be needed.

Consumer education has been a component of the food marketing industry for many decades, not always to the benefit of the consumer. Using Cooperative Extension agents, home economists and home economics teachers, the meat and dairy industries, among others, have helped educate consumers about selection, storage, and preparation of products. Much of the stimulus has come as a byproduct of USDA farm programs particularly for products with surpluses and price supports. Since the seafood industry has been regulated by the Department of Commerce and the FDA, it was never included in these programs.

In the past decade, advertising campaigns have been used to educate consumers about positive aspects of products such as beef, egg, pork, and fast food which have received much negative media attention. In this regard, too, the seafood industry is a latecomer. The National Seafood Council has launched a $6.5 million print and television campaign to counterbalance the negative publicity which seafood has recently received (Manges 1989).



This paper is an attempt to compile and explain the many issues related to consumers' quest for quality seafood. It is an area virtually unexplored by consumer researchers yet one which has recently received a great deal of attention from the media and is beginning to attract research funds. A bounty of researchable questions surround the issue of seafood quality.

Perceptions of Seafood Quality

Beyond the Miklos focus study cited earlier, little research has been done to determine how consumers perceive seafood quality. How do consumers perceive seafood quality? How important is quality? Do they judge quality of seafood differently than for other products? What cues do they use to assess quality? How do they respond to low quality? Do consumers perceive quality differences between finfish and shellfish?, a raw and cooked fish?, large supermarkets and small specialty stores as fish vendors? Do the answers to these questions vary by age, geographical location, education, ethnic background, or other demographic characteristics? How do consumer perceptions of quality compare with those of the experts?

How has consumer demand for seafood changed in response to negative media reports regarding environmental damage and seafood contaminations? Is fish consumption in general or only consumption of selected categories or species affected? What kinds of seafood-related risks concern consumers most? How do consumers perceive the quality of highly processed seafood products such as surimi?

Consumption of Seafood

Beyond aggregated per capita statistics, little is known about individual differences in seafood consumption. What demographic factors affect consumption, and in what way? How does consumption vary by species? Where is seafood consumed (home versus restaurant)? How is it handled and prepared? Does quantity or type of consumption vary by ethnic or religious group? Answer to these questions would be useful to regulatory agencies attempting to assess the risks associated with particular environmental episodes. It could also help educators target audiences with information on the benefits and risks related to consumption of a particular species.

Knowledge of Seafood Quality and Risks

Research related to consumer knowledge of seafood quality and safety is virtually nonexistent. Many interesting issues remain unexplored. What information do consumers use to select quality fish? What do they know of the risks related to seafood consumption? Can they identify the risks associated with specific species and are they aware of selection, preparation, and consumption strategies which minimize risks? Preliminary research (Anderson 1989) indicates that consumers overgeneralize negative news regarding seafood risks. A survey of college students reveals that some consumers think a person can get AIDS from eating seafood. Consumer knowledge of seafood inspection is another area for investigation. Do consumers believe all seafood sold in the United States is inspected? Do they believe inspection is important? Which agency would they prefer do the inspection?

Tradeoffs Regarding Seafood Quality

and Willingness-to-Pay for Quality Assurances

Little is known about consumers' willingness-to-pay for higher quality seafood. Will they pay a premium for higher quality and, if so, how much? Will this willingness-to-pay vary by quality characteristics, species, and/or product form? What tradeoffs between quality characteristics are consumers most likely to make? Are consumers willing to pay for quality assurances such as government inspection programs, money-back guarantees, and so forth? If so, which consumers are willing to pay and how much?


At the present time, the marketing system in the seafood industry is not providing consumers with proper assurances regarding seafood quality and safety. Public policies must be designed to internalize the unobservable factors. Fish vendors may be required to provide information regarding the age or origin of a fish, additives used, and/or presence of antibiotic residues.

The four major areas of market failure discussed were lack of (1) accountability, (2) observability, (3) knowledge regarding buyers needs, and (4) consumer knowledge regarding seafood selection and preparation.

Public policies designed to increase industry accountability include mandatory labeling of species, when and where caught, and name and address of fisherman, processor, or distributor. Alternatively, private firms can join together to form a marketing cooperative which can create a brand name enabling the consumer to reward a high quality seller with repeat purchases while boycotting low quality distributors.

Nonobservable characteristics can be made easily observable by policies requiring labeling, grading, or inspecting. Labeling can help consumers discover nutritional value, additives, irradiation, pesticides, or preservatives. An inspection program could reveal presence and levels of parasites, bacteria, heavy metals, and viruses. Unsafe seafood could be kept off the market. In cases where safety considerations were not serious, results of inspection could be provided by a grade or on a label to offer the consumer the opportunity to make a more informed choice among alternative quality levels.

Lack of knowledge regarding buyer preferences regarding seafood can be remedied by research on consumer behavior. As the USDA has done with milk and other supported products, a government agency such as National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) must fund primary research to learn what consumers eat and why. Effects of negative news about seafood safety must also be studied.

Finally, as Cooperative Extension and USDA have focused their attention on agricultural products, so must other agencies like Marine Advisory Service focus on consumer knowledge regarding seafood products. If USDA is given authority for seafood inspection, Cooperative Extension can turn its education efforts to seafood safety and quality. Education programs should be developed to help consumers become informed decision makers. This will enable the market to perform more efficiently.


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Joan Gray Anderson is Associate Professor, Consumer Studies Program and James L. Anderson is Associate Professor, Department of Resource Econimics, University of Rhode Island, Kingston, RI.
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Author:Anderson, Joan Gray; Anderson, James L.
Publication:Journal of Consumer Affairs
Date:Jun 22, 1991
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