Accredited Fish Farm Scheme on-site inspection for a local fish farm

The Importance of Safe and Good Quality Food

The sustainability challenges of the seafood industry is one of the hardest to monitor. For instance, it is often overlooked how closely interlinked food safety, nutrition and food security are. Access to safe and nutritious food is key to sustaining life and promoting good health. Unsafe food – that contains harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites, or chemical substances can cause more than 200 different diseases[1]. Around the world, an estimated 600 million (almost 1 in 10 people) fall ill after eating contaminated foods each year[2].

Locally, the Centre for Food Safety keep the Hong Kong public informed of food safety alerts. Interestingly in 2021 alone there have been six food/allergy alerts, including not to consume pre-packaged rice cookies from Taiwan for concern of non-food grade nitrogen in production[3] and undeclared allergens found in pre-packaged date sample[4].

Seafood fraud is increasingly common[5]. The FAO published a report on food fraud in the fisheries sector, identifying fish being the third highest risk category. The article highlighted a case study of mislabeled puffer fish in Bangladesh. Some of the species contain a toxin (called Tetrodoxin) which can cause fatalities when consuming the fish with high levels of this toxin. In Bangladesh in 2008, unknowingly purchased cheap puffer fish with tetrodotoxin in local markets gave rise to 3 outbreaks, 141 cases and 17 deaths[6].

A steady and safe supply of food not only contributes to food and nutrition security, but also supports national economies, trade and tourism, stimulating sustainable development.  In this article, we explore the importance of seafood assurance schemes using the Accredited Fish Farm Scheme as an example, the robust compliance requirements and how this impacts consumer confidence.

Accredited Fish Farm Scheme

In Hong Kong, The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) set up the Accredited Fish Farm Scheme (AFFS) in order to promote the sustainability of the fisheries industry, and by doing so improve the quality of locally produced aquaculture products.

The scheme also supports local aquaculturists to increase the competitiveness of their products and to provide quality and safe fish to the public. It aims[7]:

  • to enhance the quality of local aquaculture products by introducing Good Aquaculture Practices (GAP) to local aquatic farms;
  • to increase transparency of the production process through the standardization of processes in order to gain consumer confidence in local aquaculture products;
  • to highlight the safety of local aquaculture products by introducing pre-marketing product tests; and
  • to make local aquaculture products stand out through branding.

Voluntary Accredited Fish Farm Scheme is prepared by Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department

Quality Assurance and Food Safety Checks as part of AFFS Accreditation

Products which are compliant with the AFFS criteria are eligible to carry the AFFS brand on their packaging, however, the process is rigorous. The AFCD will evaluate farms and aquatic products based on i) farm management, ii) farming methods and iii) aquaculture food safety, ensuring that they meet the necessary requirements.

Fish farms can voluntarily register for AFFS accreditation but are required to keep detailed records on farm operations and management, which need to be submitted to AFCD personnel during inspections, to ensure compliance of standards. Basic requirements include agreeing to conduct inspections, allowing samples of aquatic products and the farm environment[8].

Farms that participate in the AFFS must first meet the operational and hygienic requirements. Aquatic fry must also register with essential requirements such as providing receipts of fry purchase or personal statements on the source of fry on the growth period. If ever the requirements are violated, they will be deregistered from the system.

Registered farms will undergo inspection and monitoring to check the health conditions of aquatic products and keep management records of the farms. They should comply with the standard for testing of water samples including pH levels, dissolved oxygen, bacterial testing (e.g. Escherichia coli)[9]

Ahead of selling AFFS aquatic products, farmers need to submit aquatic samples 14-30 days in advance of farming the fish for sale. If identified standards are not met, the AFCD requests the right to re-test the products, or they cannot go to market. Upon confirming they meet the requirements; the aquatic product of the fish farm will be issued a certificate of compliance[10].

Good Agricultural Practices (GAP)

A number of mandatory requirements for Good Agricultural Practices must be adhered to on AFFS farms. These include[11]:

  1. Operational and hygienic requirements: it is mainly including cleaning feed containers/fish gear and regularly monitoring the conditions of aquatic products.
  2. Medication standards: it is not allowed to use certain drugs and feed additives without permission of AFCD or registered veterinary surgeon and the fish farmer should keep an inventory record of drugs and feed additives if any.
  3. Farm operations record: the content mainly involves the number of aquatic products purchased/sold, feeding records and hygiene inspection records.

Finally, in order to support the effective development of the scheme and ensure that farms are best supported to meet compliance criteria, free technical support is provided to each AFFS recognised farm[12].

Local fish farm registered with Accredited Fish Farm Scheme

Logo of Accredited Fish Farm Scheme

FMO Processing Centre

To facilitate the growth of the local seafood industry, the Fish Marketing Organization established the Fish Processing Center in 2005 in Aberdeen. The center develops and supplies premium items, such as dried, salted and processed fisheries products to customers[13] including restaurants, supermarkets, hotels and public institutions.

AFFS accredited fish come from the New Territories and the outlying islands to the processing center. According to Market Manager of the Fish Marketing Organization, Mr. Henry Yip, frozen fish quality is about 80% that of fresh fish, and once you start to fillet fish, the moisture and nutrients start to decrease. An innovative cooling technique called IQF (Individual Quick Freezing – a quick-freezing method) is implemented to address this challenge, by cooling the fish to -18°C over a 2 hour period. In this video (in Cantonese), Mr. Yip explains that this technique maintains the freshness and the quality of the fish.

Then the fish are fileted, placed in a vacuum-sealed bag and issued with a certification label. In order to provide sufficient time for fish to reabsorb moisture, the fish should be defrosted in a fridge – ideally overnight[14].

This cooling technique allows fisher people across Hong Kong to provide supplies all year across all seasons. This is beneficial for both consumers and fisher people, and for the latter, important for sustaining year-long livelihoods.

Logo of local fresh seafood

Booth for promotion of Accredited Fish Farm Scheme products

Advertising board for promotion of local accredited fish

Did you know?

  • All of the fish processed at the centre is locally produced fish.
  • The nutritional value of frozen fish and fresh fish is very similar[15].
  • Water samples are collected regularly at AFFS accredited farms and tested for temperature, pH levels and dissolved oxygen.
  • The IQF method does three things: i) retains both freshness and nutrients, ii) helps to sterilise bacteria inside the fish, iii) maintains optimal quality of the fish during transportation.

Consumer Confidence

The AFFS scheme is an excellent example of how upholding rigorous food safety standards can improve consumer confidence in local fish products.

When you’re next doing your food shop, or sourcing fish for your restaurants do look out for AFFS accredited fish, and don’t forget as per our first article, you can find the retail locations for Accredited Fish Farm products here.

Frozen fish gets a bad wrap, try it for yourself and let us know what you think.