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Fishy business: tackling seafood fraud

  • Date: 16 March 2016
  • Author: Alison Roel, Product Integrity Manager at the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)

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, and substituting herbs for other plants.

Food fraud leaves consumers feeling duped 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.

Fortunately, governments around the world have responded. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and its counterparts around the world, from Great Britain to New Zealand, have committed 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.

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. Research in 2015 found 43% salmon sold in the U.S. to be mislabeled. A 2016 study comparing 51 studies, accounting for 4,500 seafood samples, found an average mislabeling rate of 30%.

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

Finding a solution

Following the formation of the Marine Stewardship Council in 1997, we addressed two significant challenges: (1) encouraging fisheries to verify their sustainability through MSC certification, and (2) just as importantly, creating a traceable supply chain that would give consumers, chefs, brands, and retailers confidence that MSC-certified seafood is not only labeled accurately but also that it comes from a certified sustainable fishery.

In 1999 we began developing a globally relevant set of requirements, robust enough to ensure correct labelling 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 mislabelling amongst MSC labeled seafood are less than one percent.

Given industry levels of mislabelling, 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, last year, we investigated the one mislabeled sample in our DNA research. As it happens, a product was labeled as containing southern rock sole, but it was actually northern rock sole. Both species are very similar and 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.

When 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.