Fake hake: species frauds deterred by sustainability standards, study finds

DNA barcoding of more than 1,400 seafood products certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) has revealed that less than 1% were mislabelled, compared with an average of 30% across the sector as a whole.

The MSC is the international NGO that sets the standard for sustainable fishing around the world and its blue label – on products in store, on fresh fish counters and on restaurant menus – indicates that seafood has been sustainably caught and traced back to its source. More than 300 fisheries in over 34 countries are certified to the MSC’s standard and more than 35,000 seafood products worldwide carry the label.

Hi-tech eco-labelling of certified fish products has been proven to be effective in stamping out seafood fraud across the world, according to research published on Tuesday.

The peer-reviewed findings, in the journal Current Biology, suggest that the MSC’s eco-labelling and monitoring of the supply chain are an effective deterrent to fraud.

“There is widespread concern over the vulnerability of seafood supply chains to deliberate species mislabelling and fraud,” said Jaco Barendse, the MSC’s accessibility manager and lead author of the new paper. “In the past, this has included some of the most loved species, such as cod, being substituted by farmed catfish, which can undermine consumer trust and efforts to maintain sustainable fisheries.”

DNA methods have been widely used to detect species mislabelling, and a recent meta-analysis of 4,500 seafood product tests from 51 peer-reviewed publications found an average of 30% were not as stated on the label or menu.

The MSC ran its first DNA tests in 2010. In the present study – the largest and most comprehensive assessment of MSC-labelled products – it worked with laboratories of the Trace Wildlife Forensics Network and Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture‘s wildlife DNA forensic unit to identify the species in 1,402 MSC-certified fish products from 18 countries.

They found that 1,389 were labelled correctly and 13 were not, a rate of 0.92% in contrast to the global average of 30%. Mislabelled products were found in fresh and frozen packaged products and in restaurants, mainly in western Europe, with one case in the US. All mislabelling involved white fish (cod, hake, hoki) and flatfish products.

Rob Ogden, the head of conservation genetics at the University of Edinburgh and programme director of the Trace Wildlife Forensics Network, said: “The use of DNA tools to detect substitution in the fish supply chain until now essentially revealed a depressing story. Our research flips this on its head and demonstrates how we can apply similar technology to validate the success of eco-labels in traceable, sustainable fishing.”


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