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Seafood Fraud in The Supply Chain

It might be easy to recognise a chicken from a pigeon, but it’s not that easy when it comes to distinguishing haddock from cod fillet. And that’s one of the reasons why fish is one of the products most commonly affected by food fraud, together with olive oil, milk, honey, saffron, wine and vanilla extract.

How often is our seafood mislabelled?

Several analyses and studies have proven that a huge percentage of fish is mislabelled.1 An analysis of ‘king scallops’ in a Germany market revealed that 48% of the tested samples revealed to be the less prestigious Japanese scallop.2 A similar analysis conducted on shark fillets from Italian fish markets and fishmongers found that 45% of the sharks were mislabelled, with cheaper species being sold as the most preferred ones.3

And in a Guardian Seascape analysis of 44 studies, looking at more than 9000 seafood samples from various actors in the food chain, such as restaurants, fishmongers and supermarkets across 30 countries, found that 36% of seafood was mislabelled.4

A Guardian Seascape analysis found that 36% of seafood across 30 countries was mislabelled.

A Guardian Seascape analysis found that 36% of seafood across 30 countries was mislabelled.

Is mislabelling a widespread phenomenon?

Giving precise estimates is hard. Studies are often conducted on specific target species and use different samples and methodologies – and this makes it hard to draw general numbers. However, the numbers from different studies consistently prove that seafood mislabelling is a widespread phenomenon.

The first large-scale attempt to study the rate of fish mislabelling in the mass caterer (restaurants, canteens, schools, hospitals) sector across Europe was conducted in 2018, and found that 26% of the samples were mislabelled. The highest mislabelling rate was observed in Spain, Iceland, Finland and Germany, where close to half of the outlets offered mislabelled food.1

Why seafood mislabelling or fraud happens

There are various reasons for mislabelling. In some cases, it might just be that the long, complex, international supply chains make it hard to trace food, which increases the likelihood of mistakes - the longer the food chain, the higher the vulnerability. But oftentimes the opaqueness of the system is intentionally used to one’s advantage. There is a huge economic incentive to pass a lower-value fish as a more popular one. The lack of traceability also makes it easy to get away with.4

Fraud often happens in the shape of fish laundering, which is the concealment of the illegal origins of seafood. For example, fish may have been caught where fishing – or fishing that particular endangered species – was denied. Fish laundering is mostly linked to unreported and unregulated catches by large fleets that operate off the coasts of Africa, Asia and South America.

What can be done?

Combating fish fraud will be hard, but third-party verification, stronger regulation, and the use of digital traceability methods will be fundamental to tackle it. On top of this, the WWF set up six principles that should be the foundation of a framework of traceability:5

  1. The essential information (who, what, when, how) regarding a caught fish should be available and displayed.

  2. Full chain traceability should be implemented to monitor each stage along the chain.

  3. Effective tracking of product transformation should make information about where and how the product was transformed available.

  4. Digital information and standardised data formats should be used to ensure proper tracking.

  5. Verification from the government or third parties should happen consistently and regularly.

  6. Transparency and public access to information to give everyone the tools to make conscious decisions.

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