In Face of Rampant Seafood Fraud, Study Reveals Efficacy of MSC Label

Is something fishy about your fish?

A spate of reports over the last decade have consistently revealed that consumers may be deceived more often than they realize — for example, ordering sea bass and receiving tilapia; an average global seafood mislabeling rate of 30 percent has been reported. Today, a study published in the research journal, Current Biology, titled “DNA barcoding validates species labelling of certified seafood,” shows that the species mislabeling rate for MSC-certified seafood is less than 1 percent.

We spoke with MSC Accessibility Manager Jaco Barendse, lead author on the new study, to learn more about the issue and how certifications such as MSC are helping address it.

Tell us more about seafood fraud. How often are consumers eating something different than what they think?

Jaco Barendse: Seafood fraud occurs when one fish species is substituted for another, mainly for financial gain, without the consumer knowing; so they could be paying more for a cheaper or less sustainable species.

Previous global studies from 51 publications combining 4,500 seafood products tests found one in three (30 percent) are mislabeled. This means your hake could be fake. This was also more common in restaurants than in retailers, according to the study from 2016.

Why and how does seafood fraud happen?

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JB: Mislabeling can be unintentional or deliberate, and it can be difficult to tell. Unintentional mislabeling usually happens when species are misidentified or confused with other closely related species when the fish is caught, mix-ups during processing; or ambiguities in product naming, such as the use of catchall trade names such as ‘snapper’ or ‘skate.’ 

Seafood fraud usually happens when a species of higher value is replaced with one of a lower value, but it may also arise when species from unsustainable or illegal fisheries gain access to the market by passing them off as legally caught fish.

What are the risks of eating mislabeled seafood?

JB: It poses a risk to consumer trust and the reputations of seafood businesses. Sustainable fisheries lose out to unsustainable or illegal fisheries that gain access to the markets when substituting species — it can create unfair competition for honest businesses and could allow illegally caught fish and possibly endangered species to reach your plate.

How accurate is MSC-certified seafood labelling, and how does MSC accomplish this?

JB: Our recent study reveals 99.1 percent of the MSC certified samples were labeled accurately. Consumers can trust seafood products with the MSC blue fish label. This is because every step in the MSC supply chain undergoes third-party audits to make sure that our standard is implemented correctly.

We used DNA barcoding tests to determine the species of the product and compared this to the species it was labelled as. Samples were collected in 18 countries between 2009 and 2016.

We tested 1,402 MSC labelled products and only thirteen products were found to be mislabeled by species (0.92 percent), compared to a global average of 30 percent. This represents the largest DNA testing effort and assessments of MSC products.

By tracing back the supply chain records relating to the mislabeled products, we could confirm that only two of the 13 were deliberate fraud, as the substitutions were from uncertified fisheries. This resulted in the suspension of the implicated parties. The other cases showed that the mislabeling was likely due to misidentification of closely related species at the point of capture.  

The MSC’s Chain of Custody certification requires that every distributor, processor and retailer trading certified seafood has a documented traceback system that maintains separation between certified and non-certified seafood, and correctly identifies MSC products at every step.

What are other benefits of independently verified seafood with labels such as MSC?

JB: By choosing seafood with the blue MSC label, brands, retailers, chefs and consumers reward responsible fishing and incentivize others so that there will be plenty more fish left in the sea for future generations.

Buying sustainable seafood with the blue MSC label also helps to protect livelihoods, communities and traditions, as fishermen and -women who catch sustainably care about the oceans — they go the extra mile to ensure that the environment is protected.

  • Seafood with the blue MSC label can be traced back to its sustainable source. Our independent surveillance audits and DNA testing prove this.

  • The blue MSC label represents the world’s most recognized and market-leading seafood certification scheme, as endorsed by GSSI and the UN FAO.

  • Research shows consumers mostly trust scientists and NGOs to tackle ocean health, and independent certification increases consumer trust in brands.

​Two-thirds of US seafood consumers surveyed in 2018 are increasingly demanding independent labelling, and consumers can be sure that seafood with the MSC blue fish label it independently certified, sustainable and traceable to its source.

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