Fish fraud rates plummet in Europe

Over the past few years, dozens of studies have documented a global fish fraud epidemic, in which fish are mislabeled as species they are not. It’s a problem with detrimental environmental, economic, and even potential health effects.

But now, according to a recently published paper in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, the tide may be starting to turn—at least in Europe. In the largest fish authenticity study to date, researchers found an average rate of mislabeling of only 4.93 percent in Europe. The average seafood fraud rate found in the scientific literature prior to this study’s publication was 30 percent.

“It seems that the industry is starting to realize how important the authenticity of food is. That’s why, as this study concludes, we are seeing a lower percentage of fraud, at least in Europe,” says Miguel Angel Pardo, from the Spanish food and marine research organization AZTI, who co-authored a literature review on fish fraud. Pardo, who was not involved in the study, qualified the findings as “very robust and reliable.”

The study analyzed 1,563 tissue samples from nine popular types of fish from retail points-of-sale in 19 cities of six European countries between 2013 and 2014. The samples were stored in alcohol and transferred to the laboratory where researchers used molecular and bioinformatics procedures to genetically identify them. They found only 77 mislabeled samples, according to the parameters of European Union laws. The percentages for each country were statistically similar.

The study highlights how different the situation is on the other side of the Atlantic, where recent literature shows U.S. retail fish fraud rates ranging from 12 to 41 percent. Stefano Mariani, lead author of the study and a professor of conservation genetics at the University of Salford in England, believes the key difference is the EU legislation, which is more clear, strict and standardized than U.S. laws on fish labeling .

Mariani says some of the sharp decline he found in the study may be attributable to slightly inflated rates from earlier studies that had biased sampling methods. That said, even when compared to methodologically sound studies, he says, the decrease is still dramatic and real.

It’s important to remember that this study didn’t include any samples from the hotel, restaurant and take-out fish sector. Studies show this sector has higher mislabeling rates than retail. That’s why Mariani is now focusing his energy on a sushi restaurant study.

Still, Mariani says he is impressed that in retail fish sales, in just a few short years, so much progress has been made on such a big problem, adding:  “I wish there was a such a quick reaction to the  many other environmental problems we are facing.” — Catherine Elton | 22 January 2016

Source: Mariani, S. et al. 2015. Low mislabeling rates indicate marked improvements in European seafood market operations. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 13(10) DOI: 10.1890/150119

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