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Global Foodservice: Trust restoration

Press coverage of UK fish-labelling study underlines fragility of consumer confidence

Low consumer knowledge about fish hurts the fight against seafood fraud.  - Photo courtesy of Legal Sea Foods
By Anthony Fletcher
June 01, 2013

The deliberate mislabelling of seafood has the potential to damage an industry valued for its quality and sustainability. Recent press coverage of this issue in the U.K. has raised concerns that weakly enforced supply-chain safety rules and rogue suppliers could have a negative effect on consumer trust, something that would have a direct impact on restaurant sales. 

The U.K. press coverage has focused on a recent research project, led by Dr. Stefano Mariani from the University of Salford in the U.K., and was published in the peer-reviewed Fish and Fisheries journal. Scientists tested 226 cod products purchased from retailers and restaurant suppliers from Ireland and the U.K., which were genetically identified using a DNA barcoding technique. The results were then compared against product labels. 

The study reported that 7.4 percent of cod products in the U.K. were mislabelled. A BBC article published the results, which were picked up by other news outlets.  

Mariani is, however, quick to puncture the idea that his study has uncovered a labelling “scandal.” He points out that a mislabelling rate of 7 percent is far lower than in many other countries. “I think the producer tries to spend as little as possible and maximize gains,” explains Mariani. “If there is a small window of opportunity to use something that is cheaper, and then sell it as something more expensive … I think that this is what is potentially happening.”

Nonetheless, the results are newsworthy because consumers are in a heightened state of alert over possible food scares. Indeed, this study might not have attracted much attention had it not been for the recent scandal where food advertised as containing beef was found to contain horse meat [see SFB May issue, Global Retail]. 

This scandal has significantly weakened consumer confidence in Europe’s supply-chain security. The last thing the seafood industry needs is to be seen as unreliable, or worse, unsafe. As a result, the sector has made a point of responding quickly and firmly.

“Consumer confidence in the traceability of seafood is essential, and the U.K. seafood supply chain has robust systems and procedures in place to mitigate issues in the labelling and traceability of products,” says Paul Williams, chief executive of the industry body Seafish, which covers importers, exporters and distributors as well as restaurants and retailers.

“In fact, studies by the FSA [the U.K. government’s Food Safety Agency] in 2008 showed that 10 percent of seafood products sampled were mislabelled, so there is evidence to show that the work carried out by industry to mitigate these issues has been effective,” says Williams.

EU regulations prohibit the mixture of different fish species in one consumer product sold. The most important reason for this is food safety — in order to avoid possible allergic reactions, for example — but the issue is fundamentally about trade descriptions and consumer trust. A customer that orders cod should not have to worry about whether he is being served cod or not. One problem, however, is that consumers don’t always know what a particular fish is supposed to look like once it’s prepared. 

“I’ve done some research personally about how good and accurate people are at identifying fish, and I found that more than 50 percent have no idea what salmon or cod looks like,” says Mariani. “When you consider that in northern Europe, species are often headed, boned and come without skin, it’s easy to say, ‘Well, it’s cod.’”

One possible positive outcome of the recent media attention on fish mislabelling could be to help address this lack of awareness, and boost interest in sustainability. The Scottish Fishermen’s Federation (SFF), for example, has responded by advising consumers to demand more “home-caught” Scottish fish at restaurants and takeaway outlets.

“We believe that every consumer should be asking for Scottish fish when making their seafood purchases as it is locally caught with low ‘food miles’ and is also fresh and sustainable,” says SFF chief executive Bertie Armstrong. “It is vitally important that consumers are not put off eating fish because of mislabelling in some instances and there needs to be proper enforcement by the appropriate authorities so as to bring to an end such regrettable practices.”

This call is supported by Mariani’s study, which makes some specific recommendations such as putting in place stricter traceability and labelling requirements. “Knowledgeable and concerned consumers would demand more informative seafood labels and would be less vulnerable to trickery through species substitution,” concludes the study. “Additionally, effective legislation in relation to seafood must be created and enforced to ensure a system is in place that could monitor industry operations and help to prevent fraud.

“The industry just has to make sure that the few misbehaving businesses are isolated and pinpointed,” says Mariani. “It only takes a few misbehaving operators to pull the reputation of all the other ones down.” 

Contributing Editor Anthony Fletcher lives in Brussels 


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