Compliance for "Fish as Safe Food" not just legally caught / by Francisco Blaha

While a lot of what I post here relates to “fish as fish”, we tend to forget that after fish is on deck, is not just fish anymore; is food.

 Typical image in the Pacific, an EU approved  Panamanian Carrier (where no one speaks Spanish) nor been inspected in years, receiving fish from an another EU approved vessel that also should not be approved from the hygiene perspective. 

Typical image in the Pacific, an EU approved  Panamanian Carrier (where no one speaks Spanish) nor been inspected in years, receiving fish from an another EU approved vessel that also should not be approved from the hygiene perspective. 

Until the fish is caught, we work with IUU, CDS, sustainability, management, science, harvesting technology, and so many other aspects of fish as a sustainable and legally caught resource. But once it is caught, then it becomes “food”, and a completely different world of regulatory frameworks gets added to it.

“Fish as Fish” is typically in the realms of the fisheries authorities, but “fish as food” is in the hands of health and/or food safety authorities, that normally know very little about fisheries in general terms, and almost nothing about fishing boats in particular. Hence a substantial part of my work includes helping the “food authorities” to understand and apply the rules to fishing vessels, carriers and port/landing sites, especially the EU ones as they are a market access condition.

To explain the EU market access conditions system does take a while, (if interested, download a manual I wrote years ago and keep updating every 2 years).  For now, let's say that EU imposes conditions in regards the infrastructure ( the type of materials, outcomes, etc.) operations (hygiene, training, controls systems, etc.) and controls (including traceability) required for every operator from the harvesting vessels all the way to distribution to consumers). And the Competent Authorities (CAs) responsible for the vessels (flag state) or processing (processing state) need to be able to prove that the operator complied with all the requirements.

Health authorities never actually went to vessels and wharfs, in the same way, that fisheries officials never went to processing plants. But all this is changing; fisheries inspectors need to get involved in processing as to control “fish laundering” (think money laundering but with fish), while health authorities need to start getting their scope of work to include vessels and landing sites as to assure compliance and traceability.

Under the EU system, freezer vessels (where fish is just frozen) and factory vessels (where fish is processed - and then frozen) need to be flagged in an EU authorised (equivalent in terms of sanitary controls) country (around 100 worldwide), and then individually approved and listed, as to confirm the eligibility of their captures to the EU market. The EU sends their inspection team (that used to be called the FVO-Food and Veterinary Office and now Directorate F of DG SANTE) to do in country inspection and verify how the responsible CA inspects their own establishments.

In principle, all freezer vessels need to be under control and listed by the CA of the flag state, but with most DWFN, operating thousand of miles away and not coming to home port in years, you wonder how they do those inspections. From my experience, they don't. I have been on board vessels Taiwanese, Chinese and Philippine vessels that should never have been on the list and where there is no evidence of any inspections in at least 5 years, yet they still authorised. And then you have vessels that are in much better condition but are flagged in a small non-authorised country, so by de facto that fish is not eligible for the EU even if the Taiwanese are fishing in this smaller countries’ waters.

 The "dry locker" of a DWFN EU authorised Purse Seiner, after a MSC unload....

The "dry locker" of a DWFN EU authorised Purse Seiner, after a MSC unload....

Two authorised countries can have a MoU and inspect each other's vessels on behalf of their respective CA, but there is only one of these MoUs in existence, one I drafted and got approved in between PNG and Philippines. Otherwise not possible.

To complicate things more, the requirements for freezer vessels (contact me of you want them) extend to carriers/reefers that work as floating cool stores that take the fish from ports near the fishing grounds to the processing countries.

Carriers tend to be flagged in countries with very low registration and control cost (read: flags of convenience), and one of the few that has the EU authorised status is Panama.

In principle the Panamanian CA should be inspecting these vessels as part of their routines, but reality is that these vessels are never in Panama (and sometimes they have never been there), no one on board is Panamanian, nor they speak Spanish… yet they are expected to comply with Panamanian food law and being able to interact with the Panamanian Inspector. Obviously, this does not happen.

The EU is getting way more aware of these issues (since 2008 I have been conducting training for them with CAs and Industry in their specific requirements for vessels and landing sites) but is difficult for them to witness inspections that do not happen.

But they starting to gain control… the FVO just published a report of a Panamanian reefer vessel inspection that took place in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Spain, as an addendum to their audit report of Panama in 2014, during which there were no EU listed freezer or factory vessels were available for on-the-spot visits.

The FVO observed and audited an inspection of Chinese-owned Panamanian-flagged vessel performed by an official inspector from Panama in Las Palmas. HACCP plans and Standard hygiene procedures were found to be very unspecific in nature, and this was an issue, which had not been identified by the Panamanian inspector.

The vessel inspection was performed by an official inspector from Panama. According to this inspector, the competent authority has more than 26 inspectors employed at present, and all of them may be appointed to travel to foreign ports for vessel inspections. Most of the inspectors are based in the regional offices and routinely carry out official controls of farms and food and feed production establishments. The Panamanian inspector who carried out the Las Palmas inspection had four years' experience of official control tasks and had initially received one week's on-the-job training at central level. Also, instructions and information had been given to staff from central level. This inspection was the inspector's 10th vessel inspection.

The inspector from Panama used a comprehensive official checklist that covers applicable requirements for different types of vessels. In this case, it was a reefer vessel transporting packed, frozen fishery products transferred at sea from freezer vessels. There were four holds on the vessel being inspected which had a total capacity of 4,262 tonnes.

The vessel being inspected is owned by a Chinese company that also has a fleet of fishing vessels. The audit team was informed by the company's representative that it owns between 40 and 50 freezer vessels fishing in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of West Africa, all flying the flag of China. The consignment unloaded during the inspection contained fishery products deriving from 23 of those freezer vessels. All freezer vessels involved were found on the EU list of approved Chinese establishments. (It would be VERY interesting to see how China inspects these vessels in East Africa!)

The competent authority stated during the audit in 2014 that vessel owners have to provide interpreters if necessary, as many of the vessels flying the flag of Panama have crews that do not speak Spanish. A company employee, from the company's office in Las Palmas, was present to help with interpretation from Chinese to Spanish as the Chinese crew spoke Chinese/English and the Panamanian inspector Spanish.

All cartons unloaded were labelled with information on type of product (frozen fishery products from central-east Atlantic Ocean), vessel names and approval numbers, origin (China), fishing area (FAO No.34), common names of species, sizes, catching/freezing date and best-before date. Scientific names of species were given in the captain's declarations for each freezer vessel.

Manual records of temperatures in the holds were shown to the team. Staff read the panels in the machine control room and note them in a logbook every two hours. The temperatures noted were well below -18ºC (between -22.7º and -32.5ºC) which is the maximum required storage temperature of frozen fishery products. The day after the inspection, the Panamanian inspector revisited the vessels and was shown the recording devices in the machine room.The records were photographed and the pictures were forwarded to the audit team.

An analysis of potential hazards based on HACCP principles for the handling of fishery products on board this vessel had not been done. A copy of the previous year's vessel inspection report (checklist filled out with comments) was available. The inspector had at that time not noted the lack of procedures based on HACCP principles. The vessel was equipped with a good manufacturing practice manual and sanitation standard operating procedures, written in English which was made available to the audit team. These documents were referred to as an "HACCP plan".

Both documents were generic in nature, provided by thecompany's office and contain information that was not applicable to the simple processes (cold storage of packaged fishery products) executed on board this vessel, e.g. sanitation standard operating procedures including detailed instructions on type of disinfection substances and their respective dilution percentage for substances not relevant to be used in this vessel's operations.

The Panamanian inspector was unaware of the generic nature of both documents until it was pointed out by the audit team. The inspector then noted "not compliant" in the checklist concerning HACCP-based procedures. Besides, the inspector also asked for translation into Spanish of documents that contained quality parameters checked at reception of cartons from the supplying freezer vessels.



During the inspection, copies of the captains' declarations from the freezer vessels supplying the packed, frozen fishery products in the cargo of this reefer vessel were not available to the audit team as all such documentation had been forwarded to the border inspection post in Las Palmas and no copies were kept on board. The inspector from Panama sought additional information on the supplying freezer vessels which was received the following day and forwarded to the audit team.

Each freezer vessel, all of which are registered in China and listed for EU export, provided a list of its cargo detailing the type of fishery product, name, size, weight and number of cartons.

The scenario described above is not news for us here in the Pacific, so we are pleased that the EU starting addressing (albeit partially) the hygiene/food safety requirements for vessels from DWFN and flags of convenience. Hopefully, they start doing this in the Pacific soon, since we struggle to get countries authorised (only 3 –PNG, Fiji, Solomons -of the 15 members of the Pacific Islands Fisheries Forum Agency can access the EU market). Nevertheless, my brotherand friend Jope Tamani is guiding many of my PICs friends and colleagues in the Islands are doing and incredible work to increase this number.

Running a CA sucks a lot of resources for small PICs since the EU does not only imposes what is to be done but also (more importantly) how is to be done, and requires to have vessels to a high level of hygiene and food safety management… Taiwanese, Chinese, Philippines and Korean vessels that would not pass any inspection as per the local standards catch fish in the Pacific and can access the EU market. Surely my colleagues in PNG, Fiji and Solomon’s would love to help visiting inspectors from those flag states and or the EU to inspect their vessels and see how they are given the pass. Thai would give us the feel of a more fair playing field.

Finally, the common factors in between fisheries rules and food safety ones are traceability and a culture of compliance, from my 30 years working in both areas… when you don't see conformity in one of them, chances are the other one is not followed either. And this needs to change if we want to maintain an industry for the future.