Food mislabelling hit the headlines again towards the end of 2018, with food experts warning us about ‘fish fraud’ – rogue restaurants passing off different species as others.
According to a BBC report, 91 fish samples were submitted to the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in 2017. Approximately 7.7% of these, all from small independent businesses such as retailers and restaurants, were found to be cheaper substituted fish. This is a 1% increase on failed fish samples taken in 2016. An FSA report from 2016 suggested that ‘fish fraud’ is most prevalent in North East England, in particular around the major fishing ports in Humberside.
These concerns are nothing new. Back in July 2011, researchers from University College Dublin (UCD) found consumers in the UK and Ireland were being duped by mislabelled cod.
In the UCD study, on a base of 226 samples, it was found that 28% of cod products tested in Ireland and 7% in the UK were either cheaper species of whitefish (such as haddock, saithe or pollock), or were falsely presented as ‘sustainably-sourced’ seafood which turned out to be endangered Atlantic cod. In the latest figures from 2017, there are also examples of catfish, whiting and haddock being passed off as cod.
Fish is growing in its importance as a food source on a global scale, says a 2013 Lloyds Register review. The risk of suppliers looking to pass off easier-to-source catches as something they aren’t is therefore likely to increase.
The most recent BBC report appears to play down the effects of these untoward practices as consumers simply being misled or defrauded. The UCD report went further though, stating that there might be human health risks, economic losses, and environmental impacts ranging from over-consumption to species depletion.
There are some well-intentioned consumers who are conscious of the problems facing fish stocks and choose to eat sustainable fish. They may well find that this isn’t the case, so they’re being cheated in a different way.
A global scandal
Of course, food mislabelling hit the public domain in spectacular fashion in 2013, when horse DNA was found in processed beef products across Europe. This shows that these problems are not restricted to the UK and Ireland.
With regard to the fish industry specifically, one of the most well-known tests in recent years was carried out by Oceana, who conducted 280 DNA tests on fish at restaurants across Brussels. The results were staggering. One fish dish in every three was found to be mislabelled, and the problem went across a number of species. Hake was found to be saithe, while swordfish was one of a number of substitutes for bluefin tuna, where only 5% of those dishes were found to be genuine.
Another Oceana study in the USA showed that 40% of salmon samples taken from retailers and restaurants had been mislabelled. Two thirds of the mislabelled fish were being sold as wild when they were actually farmed, proven by DNA results.
Health risks have also been identified in previous studies, where fish with high mercury levels are being passed off as low mercury-level fish. There have even been instances of the highly toxic pufferfish being used as a substitute for monkfish.
The horsemeat scandal led to the Elliott Review, which made recommendations including improved food testing and carrying out ‘spot checks’ in the food supply chain. The main suggestion, though, was the establishment of a ‘Food Crime Unit’ to crack down on criminal activity in the food industry.
Testing isn’t a straightforward process. Once a fish is filleted, the only way to identify its species is to perform DNA tests on it.
Once tested, the results are forwarded by local authorities to the FSA, where findings are recorded in the UK Food Surveillance System. This is a centralised database used to collect food results, and identify trends within the food industry.
Of the samples tested by the UCD in 2011, the mislabelling found was most prevalent in fish that had been smoked, breaded or battered. Processing treatments can further conceal the appearance of fish flesh, and obfuscate the original species yet further.
The Elliott Review sought more regular spot checks, but there are still too few random tests of seafood. Current testing strategies are believed to be intelligence led by following up reported suspicions.
There may also be greater focus on testing for harmful bacteria, rather than food authenticity and traceability. There are fears, then, that rogue restaurants are continuing to get away with the passing-off of less expensive species to customers. The problem could be much wider than the testing results suggest.
There are fears that the regulators are over-stretched, and that the rogue traders are tarring the compliant operators with the same brush. The FSA has thrown down the gauntlet to local authorities, who are responsible for developing and implementing their own food sampling policies and procedures.
A new strategic surveillance approach is being planned at FSA level, which will provide the agency with more data and intelligence. It’s intended that the FSA will provide greater support to local authorities with the planning, sampling and analysis of fish.
What manufacturers should consider
The threat from fraud represents a very real reputational risk to all those involved in the seafood industry. Regulators will be looking to tackle the issue – but it will take a concerted effort from companies and organisations working across the sector to mitigate the risks. There are ways that businesses can help to protect their customers – and their reputation – from unnecessary harm:
Buying certified fish can give strong assurances about a company’s provenance and product quality. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) Sustainable Fish label is the most highly regarded seal of quality and sustainability, and has a transparent chain of custody which traces certified fish from sea to table.
Keeping records of purchases made.
Considering a third party specialist for a spot check inspection of stocks and also, via contractual arrangements, supplier’s sites. These inspections can give an overview of the business further down the supply chain, whilst also providing an opportunity for identified issues to be addressed.
Our lawyers offer expert advice on best practice and the latest regulatory rulings – get in touch today to learn how they can help your business.
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