The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) recently released a new study on seafood mislabeling. The MSC is an independent non-profit organization that sets a standard for sustainable fishing. Having an MSC certification means the given fishery wishes to demonstrate that they are well-managed and sustainable according to the science-based MSC standard. This certification also means that the fishery is assessed by a team of experts independent of both the fishery and the MSC. When a seafood product displays this ecolabel, it can be traced back through the supply chain to the MSC certified fishery.
Last October, IFCNR published an article about seafood mislabeling and its unfortunate prevalence across the world, primarily due to the long and intricate supply chain a given product goes through from catch to plate. Some of the studies referred to in that article about fish fraud were conducted by Oceana, one of the largest international advocacy organizations focused solely on ocean conservation. Also in this article, solutions for helping fight seafood fraud were listed, including purchasing seafood products from sustainably certified third-party organizations such as MSC.
MSC’s new study found mislabeling of its certified seafood to be lower than average compared to several of the other seafood mislabeling studies recently published. The MSC study, which was released in Current Biology, did an extensive analysis of 1,402 MSC-certified fish products from 18 different countries and found fewer than 1% of the MSC-labeled products were mislabeled. MSC worked with laboratories of the TRACE Wildlife Forensics Network and SASA’s Wildlife DNA Forensic unit to be able to apply DNA barcoding. Within the study, it was found that after testing 1,389 of the 1,402 MSC seafood products, only 13 were mislabeled (.92%). These mislabeled products were found in fresh and frozen pre-packed products as well as in restaurants. They occurred mainly in Western Europe with one case in the United States.
The species mislabeled were whitefish and flatfish products. Records were obtained from each company at each step of the supply chain for all 13 mislabeled products found in the study. The majority of the mislabeling occurred when substitutions happened at the point of capture during onboard processing. This was likely due to misidentification between closely-related and similar-looking species that were all caught together. According to MSC, there was no discernible financial motive. Two of the mislabeled products, however, could be confirmed through trace-backs as intentional substitutions. Because MSC-certified products can be priced higher and have better market access than products not certified, these substitutions were likely to be fraudulent. The companies held responsible for these substitutions had their MSC certificates suspended.
Recent studies by other organizations have revealed their detection of seafood mislabeling rates to be as high as 30%. Studies like these have naturally caused much concern for consumers. Ray Hilborn, a professor at the University of Washington’s School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, stated, “Oceana concentrates on the few species where mislabeling is common, thus their high estimated rates of mislabeling. Few of those species are MSC-certified, and most would not be sampled much in a true random sample.”
Hilborn stated that mislabeling rates on commonly-consumed species are usually low and he is not surprised by MSC’s findings since seafood certified by this organization has a chain of custody. However, lead author of the MSC study Jaco Barendse did mention that in the past, mislabeling included some of the most loved species (such as cod being substituted by farmed catfish) and this has consequently hurt consumer’s trust.
Rob Ogden with TRACE Wildlife Forensics Network stated, “The study shows the success of the MSC certification in helping to combat fraud.”
Ogden mentioned that the use of DNA tools for detecting seafood substitution in the supply chain, like the ones Oceana used in their studies, has been well documented and has revealed a rather depressing story. He believes that the research done through the MSC study actually flips this sad story on its head while demonstrating how similar technology can be applied to validate the success of ecolabels for traceable and sustainable fishing.
In the future, MSC will invest in next-generation gene sequencing and isotopic and trace element profiling, according to the MSC Head of Strategic Research, Francis Neat. Neat stated how this would make it possible to determine which stock a fish product came from and also whether the product is the species it says it is on the packaging.