FIRST IT was horse burgers, now it is fish fraud. Foodservice companies need to ask some tough questions of their suppliers.
There’s rarely a dull moment when it comes to food traceability at the moment. According to research reported on the BBC’s website in early April, 7% of cod and haddock – two of the most popular fish in the UK – is actually pollock or even Vietnamese pangasius, farmed in estuaries in South-East Asia. Previous research has shown that the level of mis-labelling suggests it is not accidental.
The “new” research (it was actually published in a scientific journal in September last year) comes at a difficult time for the UK food supply chain, which is under close scrutiny after the horse meat scandal (see Footprint March). The discovery of equine DNA in beef products has also prompted some more up-to-date research on fish.
BBC Northern Ireland commissioned Belfast’s Institute for Global Food Security to conduct DNA testing of 30 foods at random, including cod, from supermarkets, shops and butchers in Northern Ireland and discovered some products have been mislabelled.
The test, launched in March at Queen’s University Belfast, found that while all the beef and lamb samples were beef and lamb, two out of 10 products labelled as cod did not contain any cod DNA but were really cheaper types of fish. While there are thought to be no safety issues, the university’s Professor Chris Elliott told the BBC that it was “another example of the integrity of the food chain being shown to be substandard”. This is “fish fraud”, he said, pure and simple.
Previous research had found that 88.6% of all mislabelled cod products identified in Ireland and the UK were smoked, breaded or battered, because this can conceal the appearance, smell and taste. According to Eurofins, which carries out DNA testing for the fish industry, the high prices of certain species have often resulted in cheaper fish being mixed in somewhere along the supply chain. Mislabelled fish and seafood may be illegal under EU and UK labelling regulations and, said Eurofins, may also be dangerous. “Food-borne illnesses and allergic reactions are some of the possible health risks, especially for sensitive groups,” said a spokesman.
There are also sustainability issues. Kimberley Warner is a scientist with the US lobbying group Oceana, which carried out research showing that a third of 1,215 samples of fish tested nationwide were mislabelled. She told the BBC that mislabelling of fish and seafood mattered not only because of the deception of consumers, but also because threatened fish from overfished parts of the ocean could be sold as unthreatened, abundant varieties.
“If you are going to pay for a wild seafood product, and you want to choose that seafood carefully for your health or for conservation concerns, you will not have that opportunity if you are just being served anything which the industry wants to serve up to you.”
The findings have prompted calls for better labelling of fish products. The Marine Conservation Society said that “clear labelling which states where, how and – crucially in response to these findings – what is being caught is essential to ensure consumers are getting exactly what they are paying for”. Mark Drummond, vice-president of the National Federation of Fish Friers, the trade association for Britain’s fish-and-chip shops, said: “I think it would help everyone if every fish consignment had a label saying exactly what it was. The pub, café or restaurant could pass that information on to their customers.”
The Sustainable Restaurant Association said the findings were a “wake-up call” for many in the industry. Its managing director, Mark Linehan, said the responsibility for serving the right species of fish lies firmly with the restaurant. “As the horse meat scandal has shown us, diners will vote with their wallets if businesses don’t take responsibility for their supply chain. Consumers want transparency and restaurants are duty bound to provide it.”
Paul Cox, the director of conservation and communication at the National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth, said foodservice companies needed to “ask lots of questions of” and “develop good relationships with” their suppliers to help avoid fish fraud. “As the demand for fish increases and new sources of fish such as farmed fish [like pangasius] enter the market, the need for us all to understand and value the provenance of our fish becomes ever more pressing,” he said. “The news that scientists have called into question the true sustainability credentials of Marine Stewardship Council labelled fish shows that even where labelling schemes are in place, we still need to ask questions and develop our ‘fish literacy’ so that we can make our own decisions about what, from whom and when we source our fish.”