Food for thought: seafood mislabelling is more than a market misprint

With health experts reporting the necessity to eat two meals rich in fish a week, the demand for seafood is omnipresent. But whilst people tuck into their dinner of sole, they may be horrified to learn that they could be eating Asian catfish instead. When filleted, different fish species can look indistinguishable. It is this feature that is being exploited on many fish markets and is causing global seafood deception.

There is huge trade in mislabelled seafood products, which is considered to be the deliberate sale of one fish species framed as another. For example, in 2010, Miller and Mariani sampled markets and restaurants in Dublin, reporting that 82.4% of smoked fish products were incorrectly labelled. This conundrum, one that challenges the horsemeat scandal of 2013, comes in a variety of manifestations. Cheaper fish are mis-sold as more expensive species, whilst threatened species are mislabelled as those with healthy populations. Ambiguous common names that cover market shelves could refer to an array of different species. The bottom line is that we do not know what we are eating on a regular basis (figure 1).


Figure 1: the reality of the fish species purchased in the markets and restaurants. Information sourced from Miller & Mariani (2010) and Wong & Hanner (2008)

Despite all legal efforts, the inconspicuous nature of fishing on the ocean leaves a gap in seafood traceability. In line with protocols, all catches must be reported at docks. However, pirate fishers, i.e. those who conduct illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing activities, may hide their unlawful stocks, or simply mislabel the species during the journey to the markets. The scale of such fishing practice is colossal, thought to average 20% of global catch and cause a global loss of $10-23 billion per year from markets. Without tracking the sequences of food distribution, known as supply chains, the illegal fish catches are mixed invisibly into legitimate food supplies. The traceability of our seafood items is no longer a luxury, it is paramount in order to prevent the over-harvest of global fish stocks.

The first step towards recovery is to understand the drivers. These fall into three main categories; complex supply chains, economic difficulties and minimal public understanding. As regulations constantly change depending on whether a species is threatened, rare, data-deficient or otherwise, the global food chain is increasingly perplexing. This opens it to the possibility of abuse, whereby the journey from port to plate can encounter inaccuracies and deliberate misreporting.

Secondly, economic troubles are a factor for concern. Recent research states that the income of an average grocery fisherman is £19,800 per annum. In the face of economic hardship, it often strategic to mislabel cheaper or less desirable fish as more expensive varieties to boost profit. For example, a watchdog group, Oceana, reported that whiting has been sold as the more expensive haddock, and haddock sold as high-end cod.

Finally, Professor Mariani, a leading marine biologist in seafood mislabelling, talked in an interview about the problematic lack of understanding by customers. It is undeniably difficult to identify species when the fish is already filleted (figure 2), and few have DNA-coding facilities to hand. This inability to recognise species on market shelves favours the violation of rules and concealment of a fish’s true identity.


Figure 2: the discrepancies between fillets of different fish. Source: Oceana. Answers: 1: left is escolar, 2: left is Nile perch, 3: right is mako shark, 4: right is rockfish, 5: left is farmed Atlantic salmon.

The consequences of mislabelling are part of everyone’s daily life and is not a problem that can be dismissed. This is especially true when there are health risks associated with the fraud. Without knowing exactly what is being eaten, the chemicals or compounds being digested cannot be tracked. For example, in 2016, Lowenstein stated that whilst New York blueline tilefish has such high mercury content that it is on the ‘do not eat’ list, it is sometimes deliberately mis-sold as halibut or red snapper.

Moreover, pirate fishers hurt the honest fishermen and sellers who abide by the laws and sustainable fishing practices. Their illegal practices create unwarranted difficulties for such decency to continue. Furthermore, recent years have seen an increase in the public consciousness to eat sustainably. However, with so many threatened species caught and camouflaged as sustainably caught fish, the consumer’s power to choose legal catches is weakened. The markets are full of deliberately mislabelled fish products and if this fraudulent activity continues, our waters will be deprived and destitute.

With such deception around seafood, it is important to know what consumers can do for their own health, the fish stocks and for the honest fishermen. Firstly, if the price of fish is too good to be true, it most likely is and the label should not be trusted. Secondly, try to buy whole fishes where possible. This makes it much easier to identify which species is being bought. Most importantly, only buy products that has a blue ‘certified sustainable seafood’ MSC label (figure 3). This ensures that the fish bought adheres to all legal standards, keeping the consumer and fish populations safe.


Figure 3: The Marine Stewardship  Council’s (MSC) seafood label. Source: MSC

If nothing else is clear, it is obvious that immediate action is crucial. It is essential to understand where the fraud originates and using block-chains could be a solution. These are public accounts that record every transaction, aiming to authenticate the transport and labelling of each catch. Biologists, such as Wong and Hanner, are exploring molecular avenues to further understand the issue by building a genetic database of fish stocks. The objective is to authenticate stocks as they arrive at ports and could be the deterrent against deception that is so desperately needed.

Seafood mislabelling is a global problem that attacks the foundations of sustainable fishing and the species it relies on. At the very least, consumers deserve to know what they are eating, and they deserve to know now.

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