Fishy Business: Tackling Seafood Fraud

It can be near impossible to accurately identify the species of fish present in a product from sight alone, as shown by these two battered fillets of Atlantic cod (left) and Pangasius (Pangasianodon hypothalamus) (right).

By Alison Roel

Food fraud, simply put, is the selling of food products with a misleading label, description or promise.

Throughout history, dubious traders have looked to profit from substandard, less desirable or counterfeit products. From chalk in flour to horsemeat sold as beef – food fraud is as old as industrial food production itself.

Tricks of the trade have included coloring vegetables with copper; diluting milk with water; substituting herbs for other plants; and bulking up lamb curries with beef or chicken.

‘Food scandals’ leave consumers feeling duped, misled and distrustful of retailers and brands. They can also lead to people eating foods that violate their religious or moral values. Furthermore they can result in allergic reactions, poisoning and illness.

Governments around the world have responded. The Food Standards Agency in the U.K., the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the European Food Safety Authority and Food Standards Australia New Zealand, to name a few, commit extensive resources to ensuring the safety and correct labeling of our food. But the problem persists – and responsibility is often laid at the feet of food suppliers.

Seafood fraud: The problem with fish

Scientists have identified seafood as being affected by widespread, modern-day food fraud. The international trade and price variability of fish provides ample temptation to would-be fraudsters. As a result, lower-value fish, which may be associated with some types of food poisoning or allergens, are sometimes substituted for higher-value species.

DNA testing by organizations such as Oceana reveals the extent of the problem. Studies in 2015 found 43 percent salmon sold in the U.S. to be mislabeled, and that 30 percent seafood served in Brussels restaurants did not correspond to the species ordered. A 2016 study comparing 51 studies, accounting for 4,500 seafood samples, found an average mislabeling rate of 30 percent.

With seafood often passing through the hands of numerous suppliers on its journey from boat to plate, it’s not just the consumers being duped – it’s also retailers and brands.

Finding a solution

Following the formation of the Marine Stewardship Council in 1997, we faced two significant challenges: 1) encourage fisheries to verify their sustainability through MSC certification and 2), just as importantly, create a traceable supply chain which would give consumers, chefs, brands and retailers confidence that MSC certified seafood really does come from a certified sustainable fishery.

In 1999 we began consultation to find a solution.

The aspiration was a globally relevant set of requirements, robust enough to ensure correct labeling throughout the MSC certified supply chain, but not too arduous for businesses to apply. This vision became a reality in 2001 with the launch of the MSC Chain of Custody Standard. In order to trade MSC certified seafood, companies must have a valid MSC Chain of Custody certificate.

These companies are audited regularly to ensure that they meet our requirements: MSC certified seafood can only be purchased from certified suppliers and must be identifiable at all times, segregated from non-MSC certified seafood, and sold with the correct paperwork identifying it as certified.

This means that seafood sold with the blue MSC label can be traced back to the ocean, giving buyers confidence in its provenance and sustainability.

How we know it works

The MSC regularly monitors this supply chain in order to ensure that our strict requirements are followed correctly. Since 2009, DNA tests on hundreds of MSC certified seafood products, all over the world, have shown that incidence of mislabeling amongst MSC-labeled seafood is less than 1 percent. Given industry levels of mislabeling, these results are quite remarkable, but we’re not complacent. Any non-conformities are thoroughly investigated and corrections made to ensure that the MSC Chain of Custody Standard continues to be applied correctly.

For example, an investigation into the one mislabeled sample in our 2015 DNA research found a product labeled as containing southern rock sole, was actually northern rock sole. Both species are very similar and fortunately both were MSC certified. However, a full investigation found errors with documentation in the supply chain. Actions have now been taken to ensure that this error does not reoccur.

The MSC Chain of Custody Standard is also used to ensure the traceability of seafood certified to the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) standard for responsibly farmed seafood. Therefore, whenever you see the MSC and ASC ecolabels on seafood products, you can be confident, not only that they have been sustainably and responsibly sourced, but that they are what the labels say they are.

Find out more about MSC’s traceability campaign at www.msc.org

Alison has been working for the Marine Stewardship Council as Product Integrity Manager for the last 4 years, including overseeing the DNA testing and test development. She previously worked with two certification bodies and at Fairtrade Foundation. Alison studied biology at Bath University. https://www.msc.org/