Official Journal of the European Union

C 88/27

Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on the Communication from the Commission to the Council, the European Parliament and the European Economic and Social Committee on Launching a debate on a Community approach towards eco-labelling schemes for fisheries products

(COM(2005) 275 final)

(2006/C 88/08)

On 29 June 2005, the European Commission decided to consult the European Economic and Social Committee, under Article 262 of the Treaty establishing the European Community, on the abovementioned communication.

The Section for Agriculture, Rural Development and the Environment, which was responsible for preparing the Committee's work on the subject, adopted its opinion on 25 January 2006 (rapporteur: Mr Sarró Iparraguirre).

At its 424th plenary session held on 14 and 15 February 2006 (meeting of 14 February), the European Economic and Social Committee adopted the following opinion by 100 votes to one with three abstentions.

1.   Conclusions and recommendations

The European Economic and Social Committee:


Welcomes the launch of a debate on a Community approach to eco-labelling schemes for fisheries products.


Expresses its wish to participate actively in the work.


Recommends to the Commission that, in addition to the necessary coordination between its departments with responsibility for eco-labelling, it maintain close cooperation with the competent international organisations in this field, such as the FAO, the WTO, the OECD, the UNCTAD, the ISEAL (International Social and Environmental Accreditation and Labelling Alliance) and the ISO (International Standards Organisation).


Suggests that the Commission maintain ongoing contact with the environmental and social stakeholders, particularly in the sectors concerned (fisheries, processing and marketing), as well as with consumers.


Considers that, given the complexity of the matter, it is at present preferable to choose the third of the options set out in the Commission communication, establishing minimum requirements for voluntary eco-labelling schemes.


Points out, however, that these minimum requirements must be sufficiently rigorous and be backed up by rules preventing, and laying down sanctions for, infringement.


Draws attention to the fact that the eco-labels already adopted by regional fisheries organisations, in line with regulations adopted by the European Union (e.g. the Dolphin safe label of the AIDCP — Agreement on the International Dolphin Conservation Program (1)), must be complied with by operators, with the necessary development rules being applied.


Calls on the Commission to pay special attention to the problems caused by the costs of eco-labelling for fisheries products, and to ensuring that these are fairly distributed across the value chain between producers, processors, distributors and consumers.

2.   Reason


In February 2004 the Council of the European Union placed on its agenda the launch of a debate on eco-labelling for fisheries products. In its communication the Council announced that it would be proposing conditions for identifying methods of capture, as well as the continuous traceability of the product from boat to final consumer, which would guarantee compliance with responsible fishing and marketing practices.


The Council also stated that the Community should lead the debate which was taking place in various international forums.


In the communication under review the Commission has finally launched a debate on the Community approach to eco-labelling schemes for fisheries products, calling on the other European Union institutions to express their views, with the ultimate aim of proposing legislative initiatives and further recommendations.


It is therefore up to the European Economic and Social Committee to express its views and take a position on the initiative.


The references in this opinion to ‘fisheries products’ should be understood to include aquaculture products, without prejudice to the environmental specificities of the two activities.

2.2   Background


The Commission communication is the result of considerable work to summarise a situation which is complex in both legal and practical terms, and the European Economic and Social Committee would first like to congratulate the department responsible. It should be borne in mind that the Committee commented in general terms on some of the questions now raised specifically by the eco-labelling of fisheries products in its Opinion on Ethical Trade and Consumer Assurance Schemes  (2).


In order to place the debate in its proper context, it should be pointed out that the competent committee of the FAO, the United Nations agency with responsibility for fisheries, recently (11 and 13 March 2005) adopted its own Guidelines on eco-labelling for fish and fisheries products from marine fisheries , which had been submitted for expert consultation and drafted in October 2004 (3). The debate in the FAO began as long ago as 1998.


This opinion cannot deal in depth with the guidelines referred to in the previous point, but it should be pointed out that they contain the minimum substantive requirements and criteria to determine whether an eco-label can be awarded to a particular fishery, it being understood that the fishery is the unit of certification. The requirements can be summarised as follows: a set of rules, an administrative control framework, hard scientific data on existing stocks and the effects of fishing on the relevant ecosystem. On the other hand, the FAO has drawn up guidelines for the drawing up of rules on sustainable fishing and, above all, valid accreditation and certification mechanisms. It should in particular be stressed that the FAO guidelines list as essential requirements for the operation of a system of eco-labelling: transparency, fair participation by all interested parties, notification provisions, keeping of records, review and revision of standards and of standard-setting procedures, the availability of sufficient human and financial resources, the submission of accounts and the accessibility of information and systems for the maintenance, suspension and withdrawal of accreditation, and corresponding rights to lodge complaints.


At the same time, it should be borne in mind that eco-labelling is a relatively recent activity, used mainly in the OECD countries (4) and that work is currently underway at the World Trade Organisation (WTO). At the same time, the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) has drawn up its own methodological and conceptual criteria for the management of environmental quality in the form of the ISO 14000 series of standards. The Commission should make strenuous efforts to ensure that the rules adopted are consistent with the existing international rules and guidelines.


Various Member States and, in accordance with their respective constitutional models, a number of regional authorities have powers in this field, which in some cases have been developed and in others are to be developed. Thus, very diverse forms of eco-labelling — public and private, supranational, national and regional — coexist in the European Union, and this may be a source of confusion for consumers and operators in the various markets.


Consequently, a multidisciplinary, harmonising approach is needed as a result of the plethora of rules and eco-labels currently existing in the various markets (5).


The European Union established a harmonised system of eco-labelling for the first time in 1992, through Council Regulation 880/92 of 23 March (6). The revision of this regulation five years ago by the regulation currently in force (7) established a system of eco-labelling for various categories of product which do not include fisheries products. The Commission should therefore look in detail at the possibility of extending the existing eco-label to fisheries and aquaculture products.


It should not be forgotten that the debate on eco-labelling schemes for fisheries products is taking place in the context of current European Union policies. We would refer specifically to the Sixth Community Environment Action Programme adopted by Decision No 1600/2002/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council (8), and the Community Action Plan integrating environmental protection requirements into the Common Fisheries Policy (9) in which the examination of eco-labels for fisheries products is considered as a complementary measure.


Although the situation is rather different, the Committee would like to draw the attention of the Commission and the other institutions and interested parties in the Union to the existence of a scheme for the harmonised, unified application of a label which can certainly be regarded as ecological, as it ensures compliance with the directives on the recycling of packaging (10). We are referring to the Green Point awarded to most recyclable packaging in the EU countries. This label was a registered trademark belonging to German company which in 1996 moved its head office to Brussels and licensed the use of the label in a form of cooperation with most Member States and third countries, as well as with economic operators involved in the correct management of the recycling of packaging. Today the legal basis is defined by the Community directives and the national development rules, which might in practice make it appropriate to have a single logo with a clear message involving a private entity (Packaging Recovery Organisation Europe s.p.r.l ) which monitors the harmonisation of criteria, and with development by various national bodies in the majority of Member States (11).


In view of the above, the Committee considers that the eco-labelling of fisheries and aquaculture products is being debated in the European Union at an opportune time; there should therefore be no delays and the essential deadlines for dealing with this complex issue should not be unduly exceeded. The debate should be based on the FAO guidelines, without however abandoning the EU's own criteria and improving these where possible, with a multidisciplinary approach and a criterion for harmonisation, the main objectives being to protect the environment and resources and serve the consumer.

3.   General comments

3.1   Various approaches


The FAO, being an organisation with fisheries competence and thus a reference for the various regional fisheries organisations connected with the current Law of the Sea based on the UN Convention, has adopted an approach to the labelling of fisheries products aimed at protecting fisheries, and referring only indirectly to the other phases of the marketing of the product.


On the other hand, other international organisations, such as the WTO (12) and UNCTAD, focus, within the general framework of the Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade, on ensuring that eco-labelling systems neither constitute illegal barriers to international trade nor place developing countries at a disadvantage (13). These organisations are attempting to make complementary sustainable fisheries measures, such as eco-labelling, compatible with the international rules prohibiting the establishment of technical barriers to international trade or measures of similar effect, also taking account of the need for cooperation so that countries without the technical and financial resources needed for the establishment of eco-labels can receive the necessary support. In this sense the Committee considers that the eco-labelling of fisheries products does not in itself constitute a barrier to international trade, as long as its rules make provision for the necessary transparency and equal access mechanisms.


The work of the ISO and other organisations on standardisation, on the other hand, focuses more on methodology and good practice in environmental management and related eco-labelling; no documents exist dealing specifically with fisheries products.


Only the work of the FAO refers explicitly to the eco-labelling of fisheries products, but we share the Commission's view that any decision taken must be based not only on compliance with the decisions of the international organisations but also on harmonisation of the different approaches arising from the specific characteristics and tasks of these bodies.


For all the reasons outlined above, the EESC considers that both international work and the legislative proposal eventually adopted by the Commission will need to take account of the substantial Community acquis and of the experience underlying the European Union's current system of eco-labelling (as well as parallel experience of the Green Point), with the departments responsible for fisheries coordinating their activities with the departments responsible for the environment and harmonisation of markets, so that undesirable dysfunctions or a proliferation of eco-labels can be prevented, which, far from fulfilling their function vis-à-vis market operators and the final consumer, would only be a source of greater confusion. Despite the difficulties inherent in all this, the Commission should establish a timetable to ensure that its legislative proposal is not delayed beyond the first half of 2006.

3.2   Different situations with regard to the eco-labelling of fisheries products


As there is no basic regulation laying down sufficiently rigorous conditions for harmonisation, as the Commission's document clearly explains, different situations have arisen, some of which may serve as a model to be copied and others as a model of practices to be eliminated.


A study of the available literature (14) and of current international rules highlights the way in which a multiplicity of different situations does not always meet the requirements of transparency and fairness which are essential to any system of eco-labelling.


In certain cases we encounter voluntary mechanisms which have arisen from cooperation between market operators and civil society organisations. The organisations in question have accreditation and certification standards and conditions for the use of its eco-label which are clear, fair and publicly available and which apply to various small fisheries around the world. Such organisations have advisory committees and suitable control mechanisms.


In other cases quoted by the Commission in its communication, however, we come across mere private logos, with rules which are either non-existent or not made public, the application of which falls far short of complying with codes of good practice for eco-labelling. One of these cases may serve as an example illustrating the damaging effects of an eco-label applicable to fisheries products, which contravenes international law, creates undesirable barriers to international trade and is based on methods which are completely at odds with any recommendations on eco-labelling, creating, according to one senior European official, an effective monopoly.


Examples such as these demonstrate that the current situation, in which it is possible to create eco-labels without any solid legal basis, even where they contravene existing international and Community rules, cannot continue for much longer, as they are harmful to producers, consumers and other stakeholders.


In the case of tuna from the eastern Pacific, the competent regional fisheries organisation, the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission, backed the adoption of an Agreement on the International Dolphin Conservation Program (AIDCP) (15) to which the European Union acceded voluntarily by means of Council Decision 1999/337/EC of 26 April 1999 (16). This agreement regulates an eco-label which is also supported by the European Community and is currently being debated by the European Parliament (17).


Account should be taken of this specific situation as background to the study of, and proposals for, regulation in this area, as in cases where a regional fisheries organisation competent for a specific area promotes its own eco-label in line with FAO principles, the European Union should 1) participate in the work to ensure that the certification and issue procedures meet the necessary requirements and 2) consider the use of such labels in its own rules and the prohibition of labels which contravene the rules.


The Committee considers that any private eco-label for fisheries and aquaculture products should be subject to rigorous accreditation criteria and independent certification, and that the legislative proposal to be drawn up by the Commission should contemplate the establishment of a public register open to all interested parties and to fisheries and aquaculture market players containing details of labels in use which meet the legally established requirements.

4.   Specific comments

4.1   Implementation, certification, issue, supervision and sanctions


Eco-labels should be clearly differentiated from general rules on the labelling of food products. The use of an eco-label does not in itself guarantee compliance with rules, the application of which can be required in any case, also for non-eco-labelled products, but rather compliance with higher environmental protection standards, which in our case include responsible fishing practices, conservation of stocks of the product covered by the label and minimisation of damage to biodiversity and the marine environment in general.


The label for fisheries products, like any other extractive or aquaculture product, may be awarded in respect of non-processed products (whole fish, either fresh or frozen) or processed fish products, whether frozen, salted, canned, precooked or prepared. In the first case, the eco-label must guarantee that the fishing methods used comply not only with fishery control standards but also with the FAO's Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries. In the second case, the fishery products eco-label must guarantee that the correct application of traceability rules for food products really means that the processed and marketed product which reaches the consumer is the product of fishing which deserves the eco-label.


For the correct implementation of an eco-label applicable to fisheries products, it is not sufficient to have a general framework of rules; rather, a clear mechanism has to be established for the accreditation of certification bodies, the award of eco-labels, the settlement of disputes, supervision and sanctions in the event of abuse and non-compliance, differentiating the labelled product from other fisheries products.


The EESC considers that this clear mechanism should be the register referred to in point 3.2.8 above. The rules and the register must ensure that the system is based on transparency; this, together with consumer information, must instil the necessary confidence so as to reduce the existing gap between the number of consumers interested in the environmental aspects of a product (currently around 44 %) and those who act on this interest when buying (currently around 10 %).


Both the data contained in the EVER report referred to above and the position adopted by EUROPECHE/COGECA (18) in its memo on the subject of this opinion give rise to a certain pessimism with regard to the likelihood that eco-labelling in general, and that of fisheries products in particular, will generate added value for producers and transparent and accurate information for consumers. However, conservation of the environment in its broadest sense is becoming, alongside the fight against world hunger, one of the two main challenges facing the human race. It is therefore essential that the European Union seek to play a leading role in processes allowing responsible consumers to distinguish between, and opt for, products, the extraction, processing and marketing of which has complied with environmental protection standards.


The Committee has been informed of the position formally adopted by the WWF and is glad that this, despite possible differences of approach in specific areas, largely coincides with the views expressed in this opinion, particularly with regard to the necessary stringency of the rules on the eco-labelling of fisheries products.


The Committee believes that the rules which the Commission will in due course propose should take particular account of the possible validity of eco-labelling for the fisheries industry, with the costs being passed along the commercial value chain without detriment to consumers. In this sense, the eco-labelling of fisheries products could be a mechanism for focusing the attention of fishermen and firms on the need to practise sustainable fishing and aquaculture in order to conserve fish stocks which are the mainstay of fishing activity and all the downstream activities.


The Committee would point out to the Commission that the eco-labelling of fisheries and aquaculture products has a financial cost which will have to be absorbed by the production chain before the product reaches the final consumer. SMEs and developing-country operators may in certain circumstances have difficulty in gaining access to eco-labels. The rules adopted should therefore include intervention mechanisms involving producer organisations, fishermen's associations and partnership agreements. At all events, if an eco-label is to be fully effective, a major educational and publicity effort is needed. The EESC therefore considers that public-sector institutions should finance information and awareness-raising campaigns for operators and consumers.


For this reason, any action by the European Union in this area should be seen as the first step on a journey. This first step should, however, be sufficiently ambitious to establish:


clear and binding rules on the accreditation, certification and use of the eco-label(s) applicable to fisheries products;


systems for monitoring the effectiveness, transparency and fairness of such rules for all operators;


systems of sanctions (based on the subsidiarity principle) for infringement of the existing rules;


programmes of information for consumers and market operators on the exact meaning of the fisheries eco-label;


a corresponding investment programme, with particular consideration for the economic impact of the eco-labelling of fisheries products;


the necessary mechanisms for continuous dialogue with stakeholders on continuing improvements to the system.

Brussels, 14 February 2006.

The president

of the European Economic and Social Committee

Anne-Marie SIGMUND

(1)  See COM(2004) 764 final of 29.11.2004 containing the Commission's proposal to the Council and the amendment adopted by the European Parliament which states that: ‘(9a) By virtue of the provisional application referred to in the previous recital, the “Dolphin Safe” certification provided for under the AIDCP has been the only one recognised by the Community up to now.’ (A6/0157/2005 of 26 May 2005).

(2)  OJ C 28, 3 February 2006.

(3)  See FAO TC:EMF/2004/3, August 2004.

(4)  See, for example, COM/ENV/TD(2003)30/FINAL of 25 February 2004 on access for developing countries to the markets of developed countries in selected eco-labelling programmes. Available from www.oecd.org.

(5)  For purely illustrative purposes, the list of logos can be consulted on the EU's own eco-labelling web pages ( http://europa.eu.int/comm/environment/eco-label/other/int_ecolabel_en.htm).

(6)  OJ L 99, 11.4.1992, p. 1.

(7)  Regulation 1980/2000 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 17 July 2000. OJ L 237 21.9.2000, p. 1.

(8)  OJ L 242, 19.9.2002, p. 1.

(9)  COM(2002) 186 final of 28.5.2002.

(10)  Directives 94/62/EC and 2004/12/EC.

(11)  http://www.pro-e.org.

(12)  Exhaustive information on the WTO's position on trade and the environment can be found at http://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/envir_e/envir_e.htm.

(13)  See TD/B/COM.1/EM.15/2. Although it deals basically with agriculture, it is relevant to all extractive industries, such as fisheries. (http://www.unctad.org/en/docs/c1em15d2.en.pdf).

(14)  See for example the report by Deere and Carolyn for the FAO and the IUCN, Eco-labelling and sustainable fisheries, p. 9 and the EVER report (http://europa.eu.int/comm/environment/emas/pdf/everinterimreport_en.pdf ).

(15)  The provisions of the agreement can be consulted at http://www.iattc.org/PICDDocumentsSPN.htm.

(16)  See also the Proposal for a Council Decision on the conclusion by the European Community of the Agreement on the International Dolphin Conservation Programme (COM(2004)764 final).

(17)  PE 357.789v01-00 of 2.5.2005, rapporteur Mr Duarte Freitas: Draft Report on the Proposal for a Council Decision on the conclusion by the European Community of the Agreement on the International Dolphin Conservation Programme.

(18)  EP(05)115-CP(05)86S1, 24 August 2005.