Friday, February 22, 2013

Seafood mislabeled again and again

Roughly one third of the seafood sales in the US are mislabeled. A new study by Oceana is making headlines since yesterday. Again, DNA Barcoding was the technique used to show that cheaper farmed fish are often substituted for wild species, such as tilapia sold as red snapper and Atlantic farmed salmon sold as wild or king salmon. Who wants to go to a Sushi restaurant in one of the regions tested if in 74% of the cases you don't get what you pay for?

Overview of rates of seafood mislabeling  in US states and metropolitan regions

Our lab here at BIO has done most of the leg work for these studies and stories (also for this particular one) and since 2008 we repeatedly showed that especially in the seafood business mislabeling is rampant, not only in the US. Did anything happen to change this? Not really.

One big step forward in the US was the adoption of DNA Barcoding as regulatory protocol by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In addition the global initiative to build a library of DNA Barcodes for all fish FishBOL has assembled reference barcodes for most if not all currently commercially important species. Actually the total number of species almost surpasses the 10,000 mark. In other words, the tools to test are in place. However, this doesn't help any consumer if less than 1% of the imported and landed fish is actually tested as it is the case in the US.

Other countries (including Canada) are not even at this point and this form of fraud is not limited to the US. There have been studies in Europe that all came up with similar numbers. I wouldn't be surprised if globally we are looking at a mislabeling rate of 30-40%. This rate will likely increase as demand for particular species won't diminish although the stocks of many fishes are depleted.

I found some reasonable suggestions for every consumer in an article in the Huff Post:

Consumers can also take steps on their own to stop seafood fraud. They should start by asking questions -- what kind of fish are they being served, is it wild or farmed-raised, and where and how was it caught. Buy seafood that is traceable and support the voluntary programs that are already in place. Check the price. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. And finally, when possible, purchase the whole fish. Species are easier to identify this way and seafood fraud is much harder to pull off if the fish is not already filleted and processed.

The only thing I would like to add at this point is to demand better regulation from our goverments. As taxpayers we have all the rights to ask for better (only the US FDA is officially using DNA Barcoding at this time) and broader testing (less than 1% in the US - give me a break). Especially given that some of the substitutions that are happening actually represent health risks such as 84% of white tuna samples in the Oceana study were actually escolar, which can cause digestive problems.

It took 10 years for the initially controversial idea of DNA Barcoding to reach a point where it can really make a huge difference in all our lives. Let's hope this chance will be used wisely.

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