According to a report by Oceana – an international advocacy organisation focused on ocean conservation – “seafood is the most valuable and highly traded food community in the world”. However, what consumers do not know yet is that a large percentage of the seafood they consume is subject to alterations in colour, texture and shape. For this reason, Oceana launched the campaign One Name, One Fish that demands a full traceability and control on seafood.
Oceana’s seafood fraud investigations carried out between 2010 and 2015 in the retail market revealed that one third of the seafood examined was mislabelled: threatened species had been passed off as sustainable, cheap variates had been sold as expensive ones and some turned out to cause illnesses. This way the consumer is prevented from making informed purchasing decision based on factors such as taste, sustainability and health. As for this latter factor, mislabelling is even more determining: it can lead unaware consumers to buy fish with a high level of mercury (which largely varies by species and location of harvest) and thus expose the most vulnerable populations like pregnant women, nursing mothers and young children to serious health problems.
Other issues, arisen thanks to the investigations previously mentioned, concern the use of antibiotics on seafood and the small percentage of inspections on it. Although the use of antibiotics on fish is strictly forbidden in many countries, in others there are not such restrictions and due to the scarcity and little frequency of inspections on imported farmed seafood, fish with antibiotic residue can easily enter the market of the former countries raising the possibility of causing serious or life-threatening infections and exposing to harmful bacteria.
However, the fishing fraud does not come down only on mislabelling: it had indeed been detected throughout the entire supply chain. With regard to the alterations in colour, shape and texture of fish during the manufacturing process, DNA tests can turn out to be a useful tool to prove the exact species identification and origin of the seafood under examination. That is exactly what the Marine Stewardship Council – an international non-profit organisation setting a standard for sustainable fishing – did. By commissioning its DNA tests on seafood products belonging to the MSC Chain of Custody Certification Program, MSC managed to verify the effectiveness and authenticity of its very program. Also the data show the success of the tests: of the 256 unique products and the 13 species of fish sampled by the study across 16 countries, 99.6% of MSC labelled seafood had been correctly labelled. A positive result that still leaves room for further improvement.
Now the next step is to inform consumers. The labels and certifications on the products we find at supermarkets are not exactly the same. Certifications such as MSC and Fairtrade are members of the SEAL Alliance – the global non-governmental membership association for sustainability standards – a synonym for consistency, reliability and full transparency that guarantees the quality of the certified products, helping consumers make conscious purchasing decisions that bring environmental, economic and social benefits.