CONSERVATIVE MEP FOR SCOTLAND

Seafood Fraud – When you ask for haddock, let’s make sure you get haddock”

At the end of last year a seafood scandal broke in Brussels. An organisation by the name of Oceana went deep undercover. The organisations operatives gathered DNA samples from 280 fish dishes being offered by Brussels leading restaurants (as well as the canteens of the three EU institutions). The purpose of the investigation was simple: was the fish on the menu actually the fish that arrived on the plate?

25.02.2016.

Seafood Fraud – When you ask for haddock, let's make sure you get haddock"

"Seafood Fraud: The practice of misleading consumers about their seafood in order to increase profits, for instance, by mislabeling a fish as a different one, often cheaper, or even illegal”.

At the end of last year a seafood scandal broke in Brussels. An organisation by the name of Oceana went deep undercover. The organisations operatives gathered DNA samples from 280 fish dishes being offered by Brussels leading restaurants (as well as the canteens of the three EU institutions). The purpose of the investigation was simple: was the fish on the menu actually the fish that arrived on the plate?

The results were shocking. In a capital city that prides itself on seafood, a third of all the fish sampled were not as the restaurant claimed. Oceana found that 95% of Bluefin tuna was fraudulently labeled and frequently substituted, in most cases by the common, cheaper yellowfin tuna of cases but also, more worryingly by the overfished bigeye tuna. 11% of sole tested was found to be replaced by other, cheaper, flatfish species such as catfish or yellowfin sole. Incredibly, there was a 13% fraud rate in cod- replaced by as many as 7 different species, most often coley and hake.

Not only were consumers being conned into paying ‘top €’ for lesser quality fish, but diners were suffering ‘palate abuse,’ being led to believe what they were tasting was the higher quality fish. Who would dine on cod again if all they had ever eaten was colley labelled as cod? A reminder again of how often fish is smeared in a sauce which masks the taste of the  fish. Where on earth was this mislabeled fish caught? Was it being labelled as sustainable when it was anything but? Oceana's report was ostensibly on the sins of the restaurant trade, but it found huge weaknesses of seafood labelling and traceability systems across Europe.

There are of course other issues. British fishermen are striving to ensure that all the fish they land is traceable back to an exact grid co-ordinate. Not all fishermen are necessarily quite so scrupulous. Mis-labelling fish either as false species or declaring the fish to having been caught in a false geographic area are the two most common fraudulent techniques in the fisheries sector as found in a previous Oceana study in 2013. For example, low-value catfish fillets sold as high-value sole fillets or cod caught in the Baltic masquerading as North Sea cod can have serious implications for the wellbeing of the stocks, the reputation of the industry or the ability to meet sustainability targets. When such scandals are uncovered the implications can be serious. At the height of the horse meet scandal, Tesco (the UK supermarket strongly implicated in the debacle) found £360m wiped from its share value. People do like to know what they are eating.

So where does the problem lie? Given that the EU is awash with regulation you might assume that there were laws to deal with this sort of thing. You would be wrong. Despite the fact that the Commission regulates the geometry of a fishing net to the nearest millimetre it seems that no authority is actually responsible for overseeing traceability and labelling across the EU. The Commission conceded as much back in a report back in 2011 entitled, ‘Combatting Cod Fraud in Europe,’ which concluded that it was near impossible to determine whether the responsibility for mislabeling lay at a retailer or supplier level. This is despite a push for fish products to carry a unique approval number to allow them to be traced back to the supplier.

Troubled by the situation, I spoke with folks at the Edinburgh-based UK Seafish Industry Authority. They explained that last year scientists from the University of Salford tested a number of fish species from retail outlets across 6 EU countries to ensure that they were what they claimed to be. The found that only 5% of fish were mislabeled, with the figure in the UK just 3%. Perhaps a more realistic assessment of the scale of the mislabeling phenomenon, and a welcome reminder that Brits know their fish, and can tell the difference.

The UK seems to be ahead of the curve in terms of ensuring what you order is what you eat. How so? Well according to the Food Standards Agency (Scotland) in Aberdeen, it is the network of local authority Environmental Health inspectors that make all the difference. The inspectors are responsible for ensuring both the edibility of the fish and the truthfulness of the labelling. Spot checks are carried out, without warning, in shops and other retail outlets. Environmental Health inspectors are to be found at every fish market, a familiar sight to all fishermen.

However, obviously not all of EU conforms to the standards we take for granted in the UK  So, something needs to be done. For some time I have been pushing for the Commission to get a grip. However, I have had no joy there. That is why, together with colleagues in the European Parliament, including the Fisheries Chair Alain Cadec, I have lodged a Resolution to address the issue. It includes the following statement -

"The European Parliament...Calls on Member States to strengthen national controls, including on non-processed fish to the restaurants and catering sector, in an effort to tackle fraud and to identify the stage in the supply chain where fish is wrongly mislabeled."

It is time for the rest of the EU to meet the gold standard set by Great Britain. The ultimate ambition is to get Europe eating more fish. Let’s ensure that folks can do so with confidence. When you ask for haddock, let's make sure you get haddock.