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Seafood Fraud: The Global Food Scandal

Nicole Nadler reports on the widespread issue of seafood fraud, and how it could be impacting endangered species.

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Photo by Tessa Wilson


British citizens eat 167 million orders of fish and chips annually from the over 10,000 fish and chips shops throughout the UK. Traditionally, the dish consists of either cod or haddock, but regardless of the chef’s choice, customers have the right to know what they’re eating. However, does the shop even know for sure what it is serving?

Earlier this year, The Guardian investigated 44 recent studies that took over 9,000 seafood samples from restaurants, supermarkets, and fish markets in over 30 countries. Using a new DNA analysis technique, the analysis revealed that 36% of the samples were mislabeled. With the UK and Canada leading the trend of mislabelling at 55%, seafood fraud is classed as a global issue.



What is Seafood Fraud?

“Seafood fraud is the practice of misleading consumers about their seafood in order to increase profits. Along with ripping off shoppers, these actions can have negative impacts on marine conservation efforts and human health.” – Oceana

The fraud can occur in numerous ways; most commonly, a lower quality fish is purposely mislabeled to a higher quality and more sought-after specimen (allowing a higher markup in pricing). There is also a significant concern that some of the mislabelled species are endangered or vulnerable.

National Geographic has provided a detailed report on the issue in the United States and Oceana’s findings. Fish samplings, taken from restaurants, fish markets, and grocery stores in two dozen states across the country, evidenced overwhelming issues of fraud and corruption within the industry. Sea bass and snapper were the two species that were most commonly mislabelled. 

“Fish ordered at restaurants were more likely to be mislabelled than fish bought at markets or grocery stores. Mislabelling also occurred when cheaper, imported fish were sold as local catch and when farm-raised fish were marketed as wild caught.” – National Geographic 


What Can Be Done?

This isn’t a new issue; Oceana has been reporting on seafood fraud for years, making headlines numerous times – and they aren’t the only ones. Over the years, news stories about seafood fraud have sprouted from major publications and local news outlets alike. With so much coverage and information, why isn’t this common public knowledge? And more importantly, why is it still happening on a global scale?

“Seafood fraud misleads consumers about the true availability of seafood and the state of the marine environment, because mislabeling maintains the appearance of a steady supply of popular fish species despite severe overfishing. Mislabeling also makes it difficult for consumers to use seafood guides to find sustainable fish to eat and can, in some cases, pose a health risk when a species is swapped for one that can make people sick.” – Oceana

There seems to be little opportunity for a consumer to be entirely sure of their seafood’s origin and how it was sourced – and even what species it truly is. The Marine Conservation Society has created the Good Fish Guide app, which allows the user to find out which fish are most and least sustainable. The app is a great start and is a helpful way for consumers to learn more about sustainability; however, if we cannot trust our food sources and subsequent labelling, we cannot determine if the food is or is not sustainable.

In Scotland, Loch Duart, a high-end Salmon producer, uses their own forensic science to investigate those who sell a lesser fish species under their brand. The 20+ year strong brand’s co-owner, Andy Bing, spoke with BBC Radio’s Good Morning Scotland in late 2019 about their mission to end seafood fraud.


“It normally happens in big cities where you get less scrupulous fish wholesalers who will go to a high-end restaurant, say they’ve got Loch Duart salmon, but they’re selling something from a cheaper provenance and invoicing it as Loch Duart salmon.” – Andy Bing

 In 2013, when the horsemen scandal rocked the headlines, there was an immediate response. The public and private sectors were both outraged, and immediate action was taken. Which? detailed a 24% drop in consumer trust of the food industry, while nearly one-third of shoppers purchased less processed meat. 

Despite the consistent news reporting of seafood fraud for nearly the last decade, the average consumer does not seem to have become aware enough to change their significant shopping habits, which in turn could force the supermarkets, restaurants, and fish markets to become more ethical and transparent in their practices.


 

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