Getting to the bottom of the ‘mislabelling’ issue

11 Feb 2016
Bob Milne

Bob Milne

Bob Milne looks at the recent – and conflicting - seafood mislabelling studies.

Does your livelihood depend on seafood production? If so, it would naturally follow that mislabelling of that seafood after it leaves your hands is of utmost concern to you.

Wild capture and aquaculture sources of global seafood production share this concern about their product, but what are studies released late last year on seafood mislabelling and fraud really telling us?

Improved labelling
The most recent study carried out on seafood mislabelling in the European Atlantic region suggests the recent trend is downwards and one of the main causes is the widespread media attention paid to the issue in the last four years. This has led to higher consumer awareness and improved labelling in fish markets trying to save their reputation. Also contributing to recently measured low rates of mislabelling are the strict new seafood labelling laws set out by the EC/EU in December 2014. The study led by Labelfish scientist Stefano Mariani published in December 2015 claimed an overall mislabelling rate of just 4.9 % of 1,265 samples taken in 19 European cities.

The 285 samples taken in Brussels from March to July in 2015 in search of fraud is Oceana's first foray into European sampling of seafood. The study - leading to headlines last November claiming 33.9% seafood fraud of fish in Brussels - was in fact the ocean advocacy group's first study outside America exploring what they most often refer to as seafood fraud.

There have been five well publicised studies of seafood mislabelling by Oceana since 2013. Like the controversial studies in America, samples are from restaurants and food service outlets including sushi restaurants known for high rates of mislabelling. All Oceana studies find a high rate of mislabelling, but none are published in scientific journals to allow scrutiny of peers and the scientific community.

''Everywhere Oceana looks for seafood fraud, we find it'' - CEO Andrew Sharpless and founding member Ted Danson

The most sensational claim of the well-publicised November study were claims that 95% of bluefin tuna was fraudulently mislabelled. We know using logic that fishermen, buyers, and processors are off the hook here. It is our job to know species. Take that a little further. The only place you can get away with substituting yellowfin or bigeye for bluefin is in an environment of inexperienced consumers served by unscrupulous hucksters. Keep on guessing because Oceana doesn't tell you which restaurants they tested. However, they did announce that EU canteens were part of this study.

Oceana advocates for ‘better traceability of the seafood industry’' instead of cracking down on restaurants. It is irresponsible to include data that came from the waiter, the menu, or kitchen staff and call it seafood fraud that indicts the entire seafood industry, which is what Oceana did. There was no evidence provided to suggest that all the seafood sampled did not arrive at the kitchens perfectly labelled. Oceana and Labelfish supported scientist Stefano Mariani acknowledge this in their studies.

Mislabelling rates
Stefano Mariani makes it clear in published papers from 2010, 2014 and 2015 that rates of mislabelling are consistently shown to be higher on the menus of restaurants and food services than supermarkets and fishmongers where there are printed labels. The authors of the study Low mislabelling rates indicate marked improvements in European seafood market operations state when offering explanation for high rates of mislabelling that persists at restaurants that “restaurants and other food services are subject to relatively fewer labelling regulations and to reduced enforcement.'' Mariani et al's 2014 paper explaining a 34.8% drop to zero in measured mislabelling in Ireland between 2009 and 2011 states that widespread media attention resulting from his 2009 study “had no detectable effect on takeaway food services”.

Oceana clearly recognises the nature of seafood mislabelling as quoted in its 2015 study:

''Feedback from our investigation shows a striking lack of basic knowledge about fish species and their biological characteristics from all levels of the seafood restaurant/catering industry, including restaurant managers, waiters and chefs. In most cases information about the exact species or its geographic origin proved to be wrong or misleading, confirming the considerable confusion and misinformation about seafood information found in restaurants'' - Oceana fact sheet.

In this light, it's not hard to imagine how Oceana collected the 60 samples that gave them the right to spread the '95% Bluefin Tuna fraud’ meme from the press release to headlines and blogs around the world as part of the timely message of '33.9% mislabelling in Brussels'. This study was released one month before the 16 December EU Commission meetings that decide TAC for bluefin tuna, among other species.

The scientists and researchers behind the EU funded Labelfish study that brought the message in December claiming 4.9% seafood mislabelling from 19 cities in six European countries do not test at restaurants to measure seafood fraud. It is well known that samples measured from restaurants clearly reflect on the restaurant industry not the seafood industry. Researchers instead sought out locations for testing that represent large volumes of seven commonly eaten locally purchased fish. Their sampling measures mislabelling at supermarkets, fishmongers and fish markets where all of the fish have labels according to EU law. This factor alone explains a large part of the conflicting test results.

With criticism from Pew and Oceana landing squarely on European leaders and public declarations thrown around that European Commissioners have not acted on recommendation of best available science, why are the NGO's not pointing us to the science behind these bold claims? It is time to take the vocal NGO's to task on the science they claim supports better decisions by exposing it. This is something the ocean conservation lobby has yet to do. From a scientist's perspective, any organisation that bases assumptions and recommendations on level of seafood mislabelling from data that had no physical label (as described in EU seafood labelling law) has no place at the table of meaningful scientific debate nor public discourse. Yet this is exactly what Oceana has done as clearly stated in their science report.

Bob Milne is a Canadian fisheries and aquaculture specialist that has recently completed a post graduate diploma in Sustainable Aquaculture from the University of St. Andrews. Decades of working and observing on the ocean combined with newly found appreciation of science motivates Bob to write about the use of advocacy and science to diminish the livelihood of coastal people and fishers throughout the world.