Know Your MSC from GGN: The Most Important Fish Quality Labels

Quality labels provide some basis for decision-making when buying fish.


© Shutterstock

Quality labels provide some basis for decision-making when buying fish.

Quality labels provide some basis for decision-making when buying fish.


© Shutterstock

Friend of the Sea (FOS)

  • The FOS marque is a sign of quality for both aquaculture and wild fish.
  • According to the environmental organisation NABU, it is more highly regarded than the MSC or ASC, due in part to the stricter rules regarding the exclusion of overfished species, the protection of the seabed ecosystem and the adherence to a by-catch quantity of less than eight percent. 
  • In addition, farmed products can be relied on to come from well managed fish farms which cannot use growth hormones, must comply with water quality parameters and may not impact critical habitat such as mangroves or wetland. Some criticism is levelled at the independent controls and the general guidelines for wild fishing.
  • The organisation responsible was founded by Paolo Bray, who also initiated the Dolphin Safe project (see below).

EU Organic Logo

  • The EU organic logo only certifies controlled organic aquaculture and thus excludes wild-caught fish. 
  • Feeding and husbandry must comply with the guidelines of the EU organic regulations.
  • It is a guarantee that the fish feed does not contain hormones or antibiotics.
  • For all fish products bearing the organic label, 95% of all ingredients must be of organic origin. This includes processed fish products.
  • While NABU recommends this fish quality label, Greenpeace sees room for improvement here, especially with regard to the stocking density of aquaculture farms. 

Quality labels on fish packaging are now a dime a dozen, but which of the fish seals of approval are credible? To help understand the marketing, we have taken a closer look at the most important international accreditations for fish. According to Greenpeace, you shouldn't blindly trust any of them because standards are not consistent, but at least they have driven greater consumer awareness and led to widespread re-thinking in the fishing industry.

Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)

  • The MSC label certifies only wild fish and is probably the most common label on fish product packaging.
  • It is awarded to companies that fish the seas sustainably and minimise the environmental impact.
  • Compliance with these criteria is regularly checked by independent experts. The non-profit organisation was founded in 1997 by the environmental organisation WWF and the food giant Unilever.
  • Greenpeace has criticised the body mainly because it does not completely rule out highly industrialised, exploitative, by-catch mass fishing, for example of Alaska pollock. 

Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC)

  • The ASC certification is for sustainably operated fisheries.
  • 17 species are covered: abalone; bivalves (clams, mussels, oyster, scallop); flatfish, freshwater trout; pangasius; salmon; seabass, seabream, meagre; seriola and cobia; shrimp; tilapia, and tropical marine finfish.
  • The origin of the fish feed must be transparent, but there are no restrictions on genetically modified feed.
  • Sick fish are given medication, including antibiotics.
  • Various social standards apply to employees of the farms.
  • Water quality and fish density are specified.
  • There is also a joint ASC-MSC standard for seaweed. 
  • The ASC was founded by the WWF, but is now independent. 

Our conclusion:

  • Each of the fish labels has positive aspects and they all, in some way, contribute to animal welfare, sustainability and social standards. It is to be welcomed how much has been done in these areas in recent years.
  • Nevertheless, there is currently no certificate for fish that would really cover all desirable criteria and could therefore be considered 100% sustainable.
  • But, just as with meat, the first and most comprehensible step towards better sustainability is to reach for locally sourced fish and organic products where possible.

A product with different fish quality labels 

© Shutterstock

GGN by GlobalGAP

  • The GGN seal also certifies sustainable aquacultures. GAP stands for 'Good Agricultural Practice'.
  • GlobalGAP is a private sector food safety certification body used by retailers to ensure that the products they source are farmed ethically, so it is rarely shown on the packaging itself. 
  • The standards focus on transparency amongst producers as well as for the end consumer, who can use the 13-digit identification number to find out where the fish they buy actually comes from.
  • In addition to animal welfare, the criteria also assess work, the environment and food safety in fisheries.

Dolphin SAFE

  • The Dolphin SAFE mark is a sign specifically for tuna and is awarded when fisheries comply with measures to protect dolphins.
  • Currently, about 400 tuna producers in 52 countries have been awarded the SAFE label.
  • Driftnet fishing is forbidden and purse seine fishing can only be used if dolphins are not ensnared. 
  • Although the criteria for dolphin protection are supported by all environmental protection organisations, the certificate says nothing about other standards, such as over-fishing.


  • Mainly seen in mainland Europe, Naturland awards two seals; one for wild fish and one for aquaculture. The association's requirements are stricter than those of the EU organic logo.
  • The seal for wild fish requires not only the renunciation of environmentally damaging fishing methods, it also covers fish processing (which must be organic), as well as social guidelines for fishermen and employees. 
  • The guidelines for aquacultures stipulate that the fish grow up in near-natural facilities with plenty of space. The use of hormones is prohibited as are genetically modified products.
  • NABU criticised the fact that fisheries with gillnets in marine protected areas were certified because seabirds and porpoises could be caught as well.


  • The panda bear of the World Wide Fund for Nature has no direct certification for sustainable fishing, or indeed any food product. It does, however, work hard to shine a light on the damage we are doing to our planet in our quest for food. 
  • WWF estimates that 94% of the wild fish stock is either over-fished (34%) or fished at the maximum limit set (60%).
  • WWF co-operates with retail chains such as M&S, Tesco and Edeka (Austria & Germany) in the area of sustainable fish purchasing. Due to its proximity to the retail industry, the independence of the organisation is often questioned.