No labels, no packaging, no branding …

Welcome to the Koh Mee Market

It is tropical — 7:30 in the morning is already too hot and busy in this Thai local market. Markets in Thailand blow away our senses with an explosion of colours, smells and tastes — no need for labels, fancy packaging or branding of any sort.

First the vegetables and the fruit, followed by the food stalls — a retired teacher now a cook insists I take a picture of his boiling caldron, with chicken and some very spicy sauce. Then the aquatic creatures emerge — some have scales others don’t. Some fish are still alive in water with bubbling air. A woman carefully works around the strong claws of crabs and ties them with elastic bandages. A few clams and mussels are moving their shells, while another woman carefully removes the roe from a catfish — roes are valuable.

To understand how people buy fish, or any other food you need to understand the culture and the ways people relate to food: do they grow it, do they kill it, cook it, how do they cook it? The food culture in Thailand is very rich, I don’t speak Thai, but I could speak the language of food.Thai people seem to buy most of their food in local markets and restaurants, not in the supermarket. In local markets, there are no labels — species name, production system (fisheries, or aquaculture); location or gear used — no information is provided; just the price may be…

But people know this unlabelled information, they know the fish, they know it is fresh: the gills are bright red, and the eyes don’t lie — they shine freshness; people know this fish was locally farmed or fished by fishermen, and dried by their wives. So, there is no need to label the obvious, and in case of doubt people ask. Traceability is a minor detail. In this universe, the universe of the Thai local markets people are closer to food, to the production system, to the food system.

But if we zoom out, and think about big numbers, the big world out there, then the story becomes more complex and diverse.

Fish that are fished or farmed may become different products in different places. Fish can be fished in one geographical location, packed in a different country and exported to another continent. Some fish species are mainly fished to be processed into fish oil and feed for other fish, shrimp, poultry or even the expensive pet food you may buy for your cat or dog. But most species are sold for direct human consumption. Some species are highly prized and will be exported alive (e.g lobsters, oysters, mussels…), others will be packed fresh, frozen, salted, dried, fermented, in brine, canned, in vacuum. Some species will be sold in fillets, with shells or without them, pealed or not … The variety is big. The food system includes many industries, from production, to transport, processing, packaging, and disposal — this is the value chain. In this system in this value chain, you need traceability.

This story in images, as I saw it


You are reading a short series of factual stories about the seafood production system — this is the last story of this series. The new series is about aquaculture and fisheries in Thailand. I use storytelling to facilitate conversations about aquaculture, fisheries, and all the other industries along the way. If you are an educator you can use this site in blended learning — see below learning objectives, suggested activities and further reading.

You can contact me through LinkedIn.

Learning objectives

  1. To relate culture and the food system
  2. To identify the different actors in a food system
  3. To define traceability
  4. To distinguish local markets from global markets

Activities

  1. Define with your students’ traceability
  2. Visit a local market and a supermarket, compare the species on sale, where do they come from, how were they produced, is there a label, what is the info provided to the consumer? Find out what are the most popular species on sale, are they processed (canned, in brine, dried) or fresh?

PREVIOUS STORY: The value chain | NEXT STORY from the Thai series: The small scale fishermen community in Songkhla coastline, Thailand