Mislabelling of supermarket fish has fallen dramatically thanks to regulation, media pressure and industry collaboration. The news is less positive for catering.
Mislabelling in supermarkets has been cut to levels that might be expected through human error alone. A team of researchers from across the EU carried out DNA testing on 1,563 samples across nine of the most popular species of fish and found only 77 (4.93%) had been mislabelled. This mirrors the findings of less expansive research in the UK and France last year. “It’s very positive news,” said the lead researcher, Professor Stefano Mariani, from the Ecosystems and Environment Research Centre at the University of Salford.
Indeed, not so long ago the figures were 10%, 20% or even 25%, prompting widespread media coverage. The EU was forced to take a look, and in January last year the regulations were updated and new labelling requirements on seafood products were introduced.
Suppliers now have to include the fish’s scientific name, the gear used to catch it and in certain cases the specific zone where it was caught. Retailers and large caterers are also encouraged to display voluntary information, such as the date of catch, the port of landing or the fishing gear used, as well as information of an environmental, ethical or social nature. This means there is no more ambiguity when it comes to naming what’s inside the tin or packet.
The role of the media in all this should not be underestimated, Mariani explained. “It prompted operators to get their act together.” A short-term study he carried out in 2014 suggested that “media coverage may have a beneficial effect on the seafood retail sector, by placing pressure on the large market players to eradicate inefficient and illegal practices”.
Mariani said the combination of “exhaustive” new labelling requirements, media pressure and industry action have all played a part in turning the tide on fish fraud in the retail sector. His latest findings, published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, show that “rapid, positive changes in the seafood supply chain are possible”.
And the UK has led the way (see table), with only France showing low levels of mislabelling. However, in all six countries the improvements have been impressive, Mariani and his counterparts concluded. “Perhaps for the first time since the repercussions of seafood mislabeling studies started to influence the fields of fisheries, environmental conservation, and food science, we document a clear and substantial improvement in EU seafood retail sector operations,” they wrote.
But the news is not so good for foodservice, Mariani warned: as-yet- unpublished data suggests that mislabelling is likely to be higher in that sector. His 2014 study showed that while the retail sector had upped its game after a media backlash, mislabelling in takeaways, for example, remained unchanged.
“We had the opportunity to re-sample exactly the same shops and stores that we found to be [mislabelling] in 2009,” he explained. “All the fish and chip shops remained the same and all the supermarkets had completely cleaned up their acts.”
Mariani said that action had been slower, in part, because consumers have a more “cavalier” attitude when they eat out. For criminals the “ground is fertile”, he said, given how detached people have become from the fish they eat: generally, “consumers think there are only six or seven species to eat”.
In October, Professor Chris Elliott explained how retailers are squeezing criminals out of their supply chains following, most notably, the horse-meat scandal. This could see them popping up in foodservice. “My real fear is that the pressure points have changed and criminals are targeting SMEs and foodservice,” he warned in an interview with Footprint.