Bite-Sized Food for Thought: Edible QR Codes

If you like sushi, you're familiar with wasabi and ginger—but there's a new kid on the sushi block. San Diego's Harney Sushi disclaimer is serving up edible QR (quick response) codes along with their fish—codes you can scan with a smart phone and then eat—and their first codes point you to Printed on rice paper with edible ink, the QR codes sit atop maki, nigiri, and sashimi, or they're used as a garnish. Once scanned, they provide valuable information on fish.

It all started when Robert Ruiz (now owner of Land and Water Co.) was then Harney's executive chef and looking for more accurate information to give to his customers. The restaurant serves more than 25 tons of sashimi-grade fish each year. Unbiased, up-to-date seafood facts about sustainability and origin were important to Ruiz, especially after he witnessed fraudulent practices in other kitchens, such as misidentified species on menus and mystery meat created from boiled fish scraps.

"I wanted to be truthful about where the fish we serve comes from and whether it's sustainable," Ruiz said. "I thought: if the U.S. is a global leader in sustainability, I need to go straight to our science."

That's when Ruiz turned to NOAA's Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, California. He talked to a host of NOAA Fisheries scientists who research highly migratory species and the state of our fisheries and oceans. As the FishWatch QR code made its way onto rice paper, consumers could access seafood profiles and population data on various fish stocks—right from their sushi plates.

"I chose FishWatch because it's the largest pillar in the sustainability world," says Ruiz. "I think the codes present all of the issues of sustainability—geopolitical, social, economic, environmental, and personal."

This immediate transparency is paying off. Sushi customers have embraced the use of these codes, and Ruiz has seen sashimi sales skyrocket with a wave of more confident diners. Harney's other QR codes feature albacore tuna and farmed cobia disclaimer. For the albacore, a video disclaimer brings customers face-to-face with a sixth generation fisherman, who explains how he catches and packs albacore, why it is a sustainable fishery, and the health benefits of eating tuna.

More codes with big missions are on the way. Coming soon, a new QR code will demystify uni or sea urchin, explaining how it's harvested and why it's an undervalued species in California. Others will shine a new light on salmon and sablefish.

No matter where the QR codes point now or in the future, they all have the same goal: to make people more aware of what's on their plate.

"Seafood consumers need to recognize that they are in control and can effect real change in the seafood industry," says Ruiz. "Always ask questions about where your fish is from. Holding us accountable is the kind of thing that will continue to change the market."

All year long, we celebrate seafood and chefs who put the answers to your questions right out in the open. When information from and other sources is there on your plate, staying current on sustainability is as close as your next bite.