Fishy story: are one in three seafood products really mislabelled?

More than a third (36%) of the seafood products sold in restaurants, fishmongers and supermarkets are mislabelled. That’s according to a new analysis by The Guardian. But it’s not quite as it seems.

The researchers looked at 44 recent studies covering more than 9,000 samples in 30 or so countries. They found 36% of products were mislabelled, “exposing seafood fraud on a vast global scale”.

However, it’s important to note that research in this area often targets “problematic” species, which means that 36% figure – as The Guardian readily admits further down in its story – may well be “inaccurate”. Fish aren’t always deliberately mislabelled either.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t a whopper of a problem with fish fraud. The complex supply chain certainly creates opportunities for fraud. Professor Chris Elliott, director of the Institute for Global Food Safety at Queen’s University Belfast, tweeted simply of the findings: “Can’t say I am at all surprised.”

Indeed, among the studies cited by the new analysis was one in 2018 that showed one in three large catering outlets in Europe was serving mislabelled food. The majority involved cheaper fish labelled as more expensive ones, “suggesting economic motivation for mislabelling”, the authors noted.

Many of the studies used new DNA analysis techniques. In one, DNA barcoding was used on 300 samples collected from six countries all labelled ‘snapper’. “…lax application of this umbrella term and widespread mislabelling (40%) conceal the identities of at least 67 species from 16 families in global marketplaces, effectively lumping taxa for sale that derive from an array of disparately managed fisheries and have markedly different conservation concerns,” the authors noted in their paper.

In that study the UK had the highest mislabelling rate (55%). Some of the substitutes could have been from threatened or endangered species. Even when the swaps are not under threat, mislabelling can “indirectly impact conservation efforts” – we lose track of whether species are really abundant or not, for example.

Sometimes fish are swapped with similar species. Pangasius, which is widely farmed in Vietnam and Cambodia, is often a go-to replacement for white fish such as cod and haddock.

Other research found pork in prawn balls. Substitutes also included those vulnerable to infection with parasites not commonly found in the fish it was substituted for. This “may pose a human health risk”, the authors noted in a study last year.

There are “so many opportunities along the seafood supply chain” to falsely label low-value fish as high-value species, or farmed fish as wild, Beth Lowell, deputy vice-president for US campaigns at Oceana, an international organisation focused on oceans, told The Guardian. She said study after study has found mislabelling is common everywhere. Just how much remains difficult to determine.

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