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Clover Leaf website will let consumers track the source of their fish

Matt French/The Globe and Mail

Home cooks scanning packages of food in their pantries for the "best before" stamp generally don't pay attention to the jumble of letters and numbers that can make up a company's product codes. These codes are used by food producers to track product shipments and sales – and, if necessary, to manage recalls. But the people who manage the Clover Leaf canned fish brand hope the codes will become a marketing tool.

On Tuesday, the brand is launching a website it has quietly been testing for almost two years, allowing consumers to use the code on their cans to see where their fish comes from. For Clover Leaf, owned by San Diego-based Bumble Bee Foods LLC, it is an attempt to build up goodwill with shoppers by giving them information about the products' supply chain. Bumble Bee has also launched the tracing tool.

People who punch in the code at cloverleaf.ca/trace-my-catch will find information about the species of fish in the can; in which ocean it was caught and when; the fishing method used; the name of the boat (or boats) that caught it and what flag they fly; and the location and methods of the processing plant where it was canned.

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It seems like more research than most people would like before whipping up a tuna salad sandwich, but food marketers are beginning to recognize that offering up data on the sources of their products is an important part of their branding efforts.

"There's interest from consumers to find out where their food comes from and how that impacts the environment," said Ron Schindler, president at Clover Leaf Seafoods. "That's changed a lot in the last five years."

In 2014, Canada's Ministry of Health conducted roundtables and online consultations with Canadians to consider how the regulation of food labels should evolve. One of the requests raised was for more information on how food is made, its country of origin, and how it is processed.

Clover Leaf's initiative comes amid heightened scrutiny of the global fishing industry. An investigation last year by the Associated Press discovered that fish caught by slaves had made its way into the supply chains of major U.S. retailers including Wal-Mart, Sysco and Safeway – as well as popular canned pet food brands such as Fancy Feast, Meow Mix and Iams.

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According to Mr. Schindler, Clover Leaf uses a third-party auditor to ensure all of its plants adhere to local laws.

"Nobody is being held against their will, they get regular breaks, they get holidays. ... There is a lot of concern about abuses in other parts of the world," he said. "We've been very proactive about addressing that."

There are also concerns among some consumers about sustainable fishing practices. Globally, more than 85 per cent of fisheries "have been pushed to or beyond their biological limits," according to the World Wildlife Fund.

Bumble Bee launched its Wild Selections brand in 2013 designed to appeal to consumers who are aware of the issue. Clover Leaf followed suit in Canada last year. The product line uses only seafood certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), according to the company.

Other companies have also responded – for example, Loblaw Cos. Ltd. has launched an initiative to carry sustainable fish products at its stores.

Part of the purpose of the Clover Leaf website is to advertise its participation in the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF), a coalition of industry representatives, scientists and the WWF established in 2009 to promote sustainable sourcing of tuna. The company says the goal of ISSF is to eventually source products exclusively from MSC-certified fisheries. Greenpeace has criticized ISSF for its reliance on industry funding.

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Signs will soon begin appearing in retail stores telling customers how they can use the can codes, and the company will also be promoting the tool online. Beginning next year, it will be changing its packaging to make the codes more prominent.

A can of tuna on a store shelf this week, for example, was albacore caught in the South Pacific using fishing lines suspended by buoys connected on a long line. The can contained fish caught by seven different ships, flying the flags of Vanuatu, Fiji, Taiwan and China, on expeditions between November, 2014, and July, 2015, according to Clover Leaf's tracking website. It was processed at a plant in Thailand.

"We wanted to provide consumers with the information they need to make an informed purchase," Mr. Schindler said.

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