In 2010 Dana Miller and Stefano Mariani discovered something fishy going on in the seafood supply chain.
They tested 156 cod and haddock products, from supermarkets, fishmongers’ and takeaways in Dublin, finding that 39 were neither cod (Gadus morhua) nor haddock (Melanogrammus aeglefinus). That’s one in four.
What’s more, 37 out of 156 samples (23.7%) were identified as species entirely outside of the genera Gadus or Melanogrammus, respectively – in their place were saithe (Pollachius virens) and pollack (Pollachius pollachius).
The findings for smoked products were even worse: an “astonishing” 28 out of the 32 (82.4%) randomly selected products had been mislabelled, according to European laws. “These results indicate that the strict EU policies currently in place to regulate seafood labelling have not been adequately implemented and enforced,” they concluded.
The paper triggered huge amounts of media coverage, with a total outreach of three million in Ireland alone. The Guardian and the New York Times also picked the story up, whilst Channel 4 used the findings for a Dispatches documentary. In the latter, 20 samples of fish labelled as ‘cod’ were tested, and a fifth were not Gadus morhua.
The reporting focused on the health and environmental implications: the seafood industry was plundering threatened fish and serving up fillets (for example, tuna) with higher mercury levels than the fish listed on the menu would contain. In their paper, Mariani and Miller highlighted the implications for cod stocks, in particular.
“The high levels of cod mislabelling found in Ireland could be perpetuating this problem by creating a false perception of market availability, and leading consumers to believe that because cod is so widely available, the stocks must be healthy.” Note: at that time the cod stock was in recovery and subject to restriction on catch.
Food firms were also profiting from consumer ignorance. In one international retailer, Mariani and Miller found seven of the 16 samples (43.8%) labelled as “cod” were in fact something else altogether. Based on market values at the time and retail sales, the company could have been enjoying inflated profits of up to €550,000 from the scam.
But that was 2010. Everything has changed, according to new research by Mariani and tests published by the European Commission – both published in the past week.
The European Commission assessed products from across the 28 Member States, as well as Norway and Switzerland. This is part of its evidence gathering to better understand food fraud in the aftermath of the horsemeat scandal – it has identified 10 foods at most risk, of which fish is one.
Of the 3,906 white fish samples it tested only 6% had been mislabelled. Breaking the results down, the rates were slightly higher in retail (7%) and catering (8%) than in processing (4%).
In some countries fish fraud remained a concern, with non-compliance of 27% in Malta for example. Of the 279 UK samples, just 12 (4%) had been mislabelled. In Ireland, notably, the rate was 0%.
Research just published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, also highlights how there has been “an apparent sudden reduction of seafood mislabelling in Europe”.
The team of researchers from across the continent carried out DNA testing on 1,563 samples taken from retailers in six countries. They chose nine species to test, which account for the lion’s share of seafood consumed in the EU – namely, cod, tuna, haddock, monkfish, sole, plaice and swordfish – in what they describe as the largest multi-species, transnational survey of fish labelling accuracy to date.
Of the 1,563 fresh, frozen and tinned products analysed, just 77 had been mislabelled. This equates to 4.93%, a level which the project’s lead Mariani – now a professor at the University of Salford’s Ecosystems and Environment Research Centre – said is “almost expected by chance due to human error”.
He admitted the results could be seen as “boring” for those looking for headlines: in the first 72 hours since being released the study had garnered just half a dozen media stories, and only one in the mainstream. Nevertheless, this is “very positive news”, he says.
The paper concluded that: “Perhaps for the first time since the repercussions of seafood mislabelling studies started to influence the fields of fisheries, environmental conservation, and food science, we document a clear and substantial improvement in EU seafood retail sector operations, an improvement that stands as an exceptional opportunity to realise a sustainable global seafood market.”
The authors also noted “the scenario emerging from this Europe-wide assessment shows that rapid, positive changes in the seafood supply chain are possible”.
Indeed, the results show a remarkable turnaround from just five years ago. The negative headlines triggered a chain of events that has seen the supply chain tightened up and new labelling laws introduced.
Since January 2014, under EU law, suppliers have to include the fish’s scientific name (essentially in a market like the EU where there are so many languages), as well as how and where it was caught or farmed.
Retailers and large caterers are also encouraged to display voluntary information, such as the date of catch, the port of landing or the fishing gear used, as well as information of an environmental, ethical or social nature.
As a result, fish has become “one of the most regulated food commodities”, says a spokeswoman for industry body Seafish, with strict rules on labelling and traceability through the supply chain and also back to the original source. Consumers should now have a “high level of confidence in seafood” due to the checks in place by businesses and the rules around labelling, she adds.
Some still say the regulations could go further, however. The Marine Conservation Society says the new labelling laws have been helpful but most traceability efforts have been focused on domestic species.
New testing techniques would certainly help. The technology available is pretty accurate, but DNA testing has its limitations – not least the time taken.
Traditional tests often fall short, says Dr Mike Bromley, technical manager at Genon Laboratories. For example, carrying out a test to determine whether a sample of a ‘cod’ product contains cod may produce a positive result – however it would not indicate the presence of other white-fish that may have been used to ‘bulk-up’ the product, due to there being a cheaper alternative readily available, he explains.
Bromley claims that next generation sequencing could potentially “turn the tables” given that 7,000 plant and animal species could be tested in one hit. The drawback may well be cost.
Responsibility for ensuring that traceability and general food labelling rules are complied with falls with the local trading standards officers. But these departments have seen up to 70% cuts to their budgets, which will have an inevitable impact on levels of enforcement and testing.
In the year to March 31, 2015, labelling and presentation analyses carried out by UK local authorities decreased by 32.6% to 6,700. Samples tested for composition also fell by almost 13% – from 19,386 to 16,899. Total reported samples decreased by 9.5% which “continues an overall decline in recent years”, according to the Food Standards Agency (FSA) – apart from 2013/2014 as a result of the horsemeat scandal.
David Pickering, Trading Standards manager at Buckinghamshire and Surrey Trading Standards Service, says the budget cuts have made carrying out tests “very difficult”. Indeed, six councils didn’t carry out any sampling at all in 2014/15.
Food manufacturers and retailers also carry out testing. Just how much is unclear as a result of commercial sensitivity. It’s no secret, however, that retailers have shone the spotlight up and down their supply chains to ensure they aren’t left red-faced when their white fish fillets aren’t what the label on the box indicates.
Bigger fines have certainly helped to make some criminals and dodgy food firms to think twice before sticking ‘cod’ on a box full of pollack. Speaking at a conference earlier this year, Dominic Watkins, a partner at law firm DWF, noted how the consequences now when things go wrong have really changed.
Back in February Michael Redhead was sentenced to six months in prison and fined £50,000 after local Trading Standards officers discovered the company director had been passing off Japanese sea bass, a form of perch, as sea bass. Some 390,000 packs of the fish were sold through Iceland supermarkets.
The FSA’s head of food crime welcomed the conviction. But how many other local Trading Standards branches have the manpower or the budget to go chasing fish fraud?
Those that are able to might want to look at the foodservice sector. Professor Chris Elliott recently warned that the intensity shown by retailers to minimise the opportunities for food fraud had not been mirrored in foodservice.
“What worries me more than anything else is that the people making money from food fraud that see these efforts being made in one area will change tack and move on to another [part of the sector]. The foodservice chains do tend to be more complex and every link is a vulnerability.”
Pickering also notes that takeaways have become a “desirable market” for fraud to take place. Mariani has similar concerns. His study found cases of mislabelling in only 21 of the 647 UK samples (3.25%) he tested in Cardiff, Manchester, Glasgow and Plymouth – a level which was second only to France (2.7%). But the initial investigation was limited to retail.
Data yet to be published suggests the rates are higher in restaurants and takeaways, Mariani explains. This didn’t comes as a surprise. In 2013 he had the opportunity to revisit the Irish stores and outlets he’d sampled in the seminal 2010 study. Whilst the media furore had led to significant improvements in the supermarkets – “they had completely cleaned up their acts,” he says – it “had no detectable effect on takeaway food services”.
Why? First, the supermarkets are more likely to be concerned by negative publicity. Second, they can’t afford to lose customers given that it’s easy for shoppers to switch to a competitor. Third, consumers are more “cavalier” when they eat out. And finally, the regulations are not as strict.
Indeed, only last month stories emerged that EU officials, no less, were being “ripped off” by a systemic fraud in the Belgian dining scene. Oceana discovered mislabelling rates of 38% in EU institution canteens; in 95% of cases, costly Bluefin tuna was sold as big-eye tuna or yellow fin tuna (both cheaper tropical species).
Fraudsters are still slipping through the net, it seems, with the job far from done. “The EU needs to clean up its fishy business, take responsibility and urgently improve traceability and labelling of seafood,” explains the campaign group’s executive director Lasse Gustavsson.