Seaweed & Co – which sources its wild Ascophyllum seaweed from the Scottish Hebrides islands, sells its seaweed ingredients mostly into food supplement channels for salt replacement and nutritional enhancement with EU-approved, iodine-based health claims.
Managing director Dr Craig Rose told us this morning that in some cases existing standards were not up to scratch with much material on-market simply labelled as ‘seaweed’ with little information about species type and regional harvesting source.
“This will help differentiate material from lower quality material coming onto the market with very limited testing or traceability,” Dr Rose said.
“There is a potential problem with adulterated products with heavy metals and unknown ingredients and low quality products. The good thing about this is that DNA doesn’t lie.”
Dr Rose noted anyone could verify every batch it harvests and supplies via its website – right down to the person responsible for cutting the seaweed.
Such traceability was necessary to meet British Retail Consortium (BRC) Quality Control requirements like SALSA (Safe and Local Supplier Approval) in the UK, as an example, along with EU requirements and Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) in the US and elsewhere.
Botanicals expert Dr Luca Bucchini, managing director of Rome-based Hylobates Consulting, said there was no denying the whole botanicals sector could benefit from better authentication.
“DNA is one of the tools, with its pros and cons, as the controversy in the US over DNA testing of botanicals by the New York Attorney General shows,” said Dr Bucchini.
“Of course some methods may reduce the problems. However, the real question is whether the industry is ready to invest more in quality testing, and whether consumers are sufficiently informed to demand all the testing needed.”
Juliana Klose, project manager in Fish & Seafood working for the Swiss Global Enterprise's Swiss Import Promotion Programme (SIPP) which promotes processed seaweed from Indonesia, wondered how much broad demand there would be for DNA testing when much of the world’s tropical seaweed supply is cultivated, not wild grown. Most of it is sourced in Asia.
Klose said traceability systems were being improved at seaweed farms, especially in places like Indonesia where cultivation and harvesting is dispersed among 1000s of islands. One such project was Smart-Fish, financed by the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) and attracting interest across the region.
“Are consumers really willing to pay for additional testing?" Klose wondered.
"In the case of the red seaweed-derived food additive carrageenan, it is highly unlikely that DNA testing will be an established industry testing method in the future, especially taking into account the costs for testing and the small concentration in food products - between 0.02 and 1.5%.”
Seaweed extracts like carrageenan and agar typically sell for between €5 and €15 per kilogram, depending on the processing method.
A spokesperson at the Dutch HQ’d Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC ) told us the group was working with the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) to develop standards for the sector. In that direction a fact-finding mission had just returned from Japan.
The MSC, which certifies fisheries according to their sustainability, is moving beyond wild-capture fish and invertebrate fisheries to include wild seaweed for the first time.
Bas Geerts, standards director for ASC, previously told us a responsible approach to seaweed production was “critical” in order to reduce the environmental impact of commercial seaweed production.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) around 25 million tonnes of seaweeds and other algae are harvested every year, representing over 15% of the total world fisheries and aquaculture production globally, with an estimated annual value of €5.2 billion.
Fiona Houston, CEO and co-founder of UK seaweed product manufacturer, Mara, said it had full SALSA-level certification in place for its Scotland-sourced range that sells in the likes of Marks & Spencer, Whole Foods, online, in France and soon in the US.
With such full supply chain control and authentication in place it had little need for a service like DNA testing. But for seaweed ingredient suppliers she said “I can see the advantage of the DNA traceability and I can see the benefit for food manufacturers.”
“But we have full traceability end-to-end: we know exactly where our different species of seaweed has been harvested, and where it is going to.”
Mara products are marketed with ‘high in’ nutrition claims for potassium, magnesium and iodine – with an EU approved claim for thyroid function also linked to iodine.
Mintel statistics show about 29,000 seaweed-linked products have been launched in Europe between 2011 and 2015.
Between wild and cultivated varieties, the value of the market is estimated at €800m for use in food supplements, as food texturants and other applications like in animal feed.