Have you ever been a victim of food fraud, either as a consumer or while working in the food industry? It’s likely that at some point you have paid too much for a ‘premium’ product that was not exactly what it should have been. Foods such as olive oil, organic products, fish and specialty beef products are commonly misrepresented to purchasers. Take the food fraud survey to find out it you have been affected.
The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) has published a report describing the results of a DNA survey on MSC certified fish from 16 countries.
Businesses that handle MSC certified sustainable seafood are required to comply with the MSC Chain of Custody Standard to ensure that they have effective traceability systems in place. This helps to ensure that the consumer receives fish that are from sustainable fisheries, as promised by the MSC sustainable seafood label. MSC conducts a survey every two years to verify the effectiveness of the standard and to ensure that distributors, processors and retailers trading in MSC certified sustainable seafood are complying with the standard.
The results of the latest survey are really positive. The MSC sampled fish and fish products carrying the blue MSC certified label from 16 countries. Of the 256 samples tested, only one of those was identified as being mislabelled. Upon further investigation MSC found that the mislabelled ‘Southern rock sole’ was in fact ‘Northern rock sole’; it was an accidental misidentification of two closely related species, rather than a deliberate fraud. So it seems that the MSC Chain of Custody Standard is working really well across the world.
Interestingly, the final pages of the report include a discussion about how the results compare with similar surveys conducted by other organisations. Those other surveys included species testing of many fish types, within many countries, mostly from retail outlets. The levels of mislabelled fish species were generally low in Europe, with more than 90% being of the samples being accurately labelled. The only countries that had less than 70% accuracy were Belgium, USA, South Africa and Canada. Sadly, the Canadian results were the poorest, with less than 60% of samples in that survey being accurately labelled. The Canadian results were also the oldest, being from 2011, with most of the European results from 2015. Perhaps seafood labelling in Canada has improved in the last five years, just as it has in Europe.
Nice one, Food Standards Scotland.
What looked at first to be a number of cases of deliberate fraud was given some sensible attention and analysis by Food Standards Scotland (FSS), with unexpected results. The organisation surveyed fish products supplied to their public sector food outlets, including hospitals and schools, to get a snapshot of the degree of species mislabelling. Of the 264 samples tested, around 6% of those (15) were mislabelled.
Any mislabelling is a breach of trust and a breach of food laws, but a result of 6% is relatively low and not likely to have a large economic impact. Nevertheless, FSS investigated each of the incidences, retested products and spoke to the suppliers directly.
Product labelled as haddock was the type most often found have been mislabelled during the survey, with ‘haddock’ found to be another fish species in 8 of 50 samples (16%). As you would expect when considering fish species fraud, the most common substitute for haddock was a cheaper fish, whiting, the two types of fillets having similar appearance, flavour and texture. Interestingly, however, almost half of all the ‘fraudulent’ samples were in fact an expensive fish (haddock) mislabelled as a cheaper species (whiting or coley). Those results are obviously not ones you would expect to find when investigating fish fraud, and they are unlikely to be the result of any deliberate attempt to gain an economic advantage.
To the credit of the FSS they uncovered the cause of the mislabelling for most of the incidences; suppliers of the mislabelled fish admitted that they sometimes had trouble identifying incoming block fillets. Some also admitted that they were not adequately separating or labelling different fish species during processing, handling and packing operations. The suppliers in question have implemented improvements and have requested better labelling of their suppliers to prevent future occurrences; good news for the Scottish seafood industry.
Coles has been caught breaching its own sustainable fish sourcing policy by selling yellow fin tuna. Yellow fin tuna is classified as ‘near threatened’ by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural resources and generally considered to be a fish species that cannot be sustainably fished right now.
After being caught selling the home brand canned yellow fin tuna by journalists from Fairfax Media last week, Coles reported that those particular cans of tuna were from a certified sustainable fishery in the Maldives where the population of yellow fin is ‘doing really well’. It looks to me like Coles relied on the Marine Stewardship Council certification rather than cross-checking the species sections of their own sourcing policy.
Coles has more regulatory, purchasing and compliance resources than just about any other food business in Australia. So if they occasionally make mistakes in their policies and procedures, what hope have smaller businesses got?