A report on food fraud in fisheries, recently published by The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) raises concerns about the substitution of fish species and mis-labelling, which impact on public health.
The report, written by Professor Alan Reilly, the former Chief Executive Officer of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, says this issues are of international concern and demonstrate how vulnerable this food sector is. It bases its findings on a number of investigations and research findings. These include a recent study by Italian authorities which revealed that 22.5% of fishery products were mislablled, with the highest incidence recorded among cephalopods such as squid and octopus and Asian imports. In 2008, 17 deaths were caused by toxic puffer fish during one incident.
Prof Reilly said: “Public health is endangered when fish species that are toxic are substituted for non-toxic species. Public health is also put at risk when farmed species from polluted watercourses are substituted for marine fish.”
DNA barcoding is one way of safeguarding against food fraud, according to the report. It said: “With the advent of molecular identification methods, such as DNA barcoding and next-generation sequencing, the possibility exists for far greater transparency in the fish marketing chain.”
Fish fraud through mislabelling and species substitution is a widespread problem in both national and international markets and, while the scale of the problem has been investigated and reported in developed countries, much less is known about it in developing countries.
Expansion of e-commerce and online food sales provide further opportunities for fraudulent trade in fish, and improved traceability systems are required to reliably track fish from the point of harvest to the consumer’s plate, instead of the current “paper trail” which documents data such as the geographical origin, species, and registration details of vessels, but can be easily falsified.