Is your food looking fishy

Evidence shows seafood mislabelling has been tightened up. But there’s still room for improvement in foodservice.

Are you getting a raw deal on sushi? Probably not, according to a new analysis of 115 samples of the seafood delicacy at 31 UK bars and restaurants. We “detected a low percentage of substitution”, the experts from the universities of Salford, Bristol and Exeter note, “which could be an indicator that many restaurants have a positive attitude towards labelling accuracy due to heightened consumer awareness”.

Fish fraud has been big news in the past, with some studies indicating that one in four fish wasn’t the species listed on the menu or packet. This can have environmental implications, for instance when vulnerable species are caught illegally and labelled as something else. There are also health concerns, such as when mislabelling masks undeclared allergens, contaminants or toxins.

In the grocery trade there have been marked improvements in relation to seafood labelling. A study in six European countries published towards the end of last year showed that levels of mislabelling had fallen below 5% in the 1,500-odd samples tested.

In the UK, rates were about 3% – low enough that they might be expected to be the result of human error. The media backlash, new labelling requirements and stiffer penalties for non-compliance had all helped turn the tide, the research team said.

This new study suggests that things are not too bad in foodservice, either. Moderate levels of substitution in the region of 10% (12 out of 115 samples) were discovered. This is significantly lower than the rates found in North America, where mislabelling in some investigations was as high as 74%. Even products that are typically known to exhibit high levels of mislabelling, such as tuna, showed “a remarkable level of compliance”, the researchers concluded.

But it’s far from job done. The rate of mislabelling is still more than three times that in retail operations. The net has closed around fraudsters in the grocery chain thanks in no small part to EU regulations requiring suppliers to include the fish’s scientific name and, in some cases, the zone where it was caught. Supermarkets are also encouraged to voluntarily include the date of catch as well as other environmental or ethical information.

The laws for foodservice are much less rigorous – restaurants only have to provide information on allergens. They aren’t obliged to mention on their menu what species is being sold. They do however have to keep the information and provide it should a customer ask. So, the researchers did just that.

“In one case where oral enquiry about which tuna species was being sold was made to the waiting staff, the response was bluefin tuna, which was not supported by the results of DNA barcoding,” they noted. “In this study, it was not included as a case of mislabelling, as the menu did not explicitly mention ‘bluefin tuna’, but it does illustrate an absence of care or knowledge in the usage of this commercial name.”

The standardisation of the system, using scientific names, is the logical solution, says Professor Stefano Mariani at the University of Salford. “There are hundreds of fish species regularly flooding the EU market. Many that are caught outside of the EU don’t even have a common name,” he explains.

Even for common species there is plenty of confusion: cod, for instance,
is called bacalao in Spanish and merluzzo in Italian, but in Spanish merluza means hake. “There is only one way to go: standardise labels very strictly, and use the only name that is totally global, across the language barriers – the scientific name,” he adds.

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