special edition: food fraud

DNA testing reveals nothing fishy about MSC ecolabeled products

By Joseph James Whitworth contact

- Last updated on GMT

Picture: MSC/Alex Webb
Picture: MSC/Alex Webb
More than 99% of Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) ecolabeled products were found to be correctly labeled, according to DNA test results from the organisation.

Seafood fraud threatens the bottom line of reputable fishers and traders, undermines progress by sustainable fisheries and can allow illegal and unregulated fishing practices to go undetected, said MSC.

The MSC commissioned the Wildlife DNA Forensics unit at Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture (SASA) to DNA test a random sample of 257 MSC ecolabeled seafood products from 16 countries last year.

The test verifies that the species described on the packaging is the same as that in the product.

Of the samples taken, one failed to yield a result after four attempts. Another sample, labeled as containing southern rock sole, was northern rock sole. The species are very similar and both are MSC certified. An investigation found errors with documentation in the supply chain.

Voluntary scheme

When asked about the scheme being voluntary and therefore not covering firms most likely to be at fault or have problems, MSC told us there is a renewed awareness of the consumer which then encourages retailers to supply sustainable seafood.

“For example; early results from the MSC’s latest survey of more than 16,000 seafood consumers show that more than half (55%) doubt the seafood they consume is what it says on the packet.

“Across the 21 countries surveyed, 65% of those purchasing seafood say they want to know their fish can be traced back to a known and trusted source, with six in ten (63%) saying they look to ecolabels as a trusted source of information.”

msc fish
Picture: MSC

The latest round of testing is the fifth commissioned by the MSC. DNA testing found a mislabelling rate of less than 1% for MSC labelled seafood since 2009. Results can be read in a report here​.

Brian Perkins, MSC regional director – Americas, said the results prove seafood sold with the blue MSC ecolabel really is what the package says it is and can be traced from ocean to plate.

“Last month, the US government announced proposed rules that would require tracking to combat illegal fishing and fraud. Many businesses are left wondering whether they're selling seafood that was produced legally and sustainably,” ​he said.

“MSC certification means consumers and businesses can be confident that MSC ecolabeled fish has been caught legally and can be traced back to a sustainable source."

Cost of mislabelling

MSC said whilst in most cases, mislabelled seafood won’t harm the consumer, it will leave them feeling duped, misled and distrustful of retailers and brands.

“It can also lead to people eating foods that violate their religious or moral values. In more extreme case, where one species is substituted for another, it can result in allergic reactions, poisoning or illness. 

“More importantly for the MSC, if our seafood was mislabelled it would undermine the considerable efforts made by fisheries to meet our high standards of sustainability, and have the potential to result in harm to the marine environment and threatens the bottom line of honest fishers and seafood traders.

“Buying locally produced seafood direct from the fisherman, or fish market, or buying your fish whole, are two ways to really know where it came from and that it is what the salesperson says it is. For processed and packaged fish, it’s much harder to know unless the packet includes a tracking code and/or the MSC label.”

Testing areas and expansion

The testing did not include tuna as canned tuna products are difficult to extract good quality DNA from, because the heating process used to cook and sterilize the fish during canning, and the liquid the tuna is stored in (oil, brine, vinegar), can denature the DNA, preventing the genetic barcodes of species from being identified, according to Chapela, M. J. et al.

The MSC are working with Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) to develop a test to distinguish between all commercially important tuna species, and likely substitutes, and is more effective for canned products. It will be trialled in 2016 and, if successful, included in testing from 2017 onwards.

The MSC’s testing program will be expanded to include other seafood products like prawns and mussels. It is collaborating with researchers in Australia to explore the use of Trace Element Fingerprinting (TEF) as a traceability tool.

Other work, such as Oceana's nationwide survey in 2013, found 33% of US seafood samples genetically analyzed were mislabeled.

The MSC’s Chain of Custody Standard covers over 3,000 seafood suppliers, distributors and processors across the world.

MSC ecolabeled fish is sold and processed by certified organizations operating in more than 38,000 sites in 100 countries. Fishers, processors, retailers and chefs handling MSC certified seafood must follow requirements to ensure that seafood is traceable and correctly labeled.

The standard is used by brands in driving awareness and consumer education on sustainable seafood such as Whole Foods Market, McDonald's and IKEA.

Carrie Brownstein, seafood quality standards coordinator for Whole Foods Market, said traceability is a critical part of bringing sustainably-caught and responsibly-farmed seafood to stores.

“We have rigorous quality standards and labeling requirements, so tracking our products through the supply chain gives us the assurance that each item comes from sources that truly meet those standards. At the end of the day, traceability helps build customer trust and provides the information people need to make more informed choices."

Susan Forsell, VP, sustainability at McDonald's USA said: "We know our customers care about where their food comes from, which is why McDonald's USA is proud to only serve fish sourced from a MSC certified sustainable fishery.

“This means that our customers can confidently know that the wild-caught, Alaska Pollock they enjoy on our Filet-O-Fish sandwich can be traced back to sustainably managed fisheries, direct from the pristine waters of Alaska."

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