Seafood fraud – a difficult nut to crack

Published on
April 7, 2017

Food fraud is not a new problem; from tales of adulterated grain in Biblical times to species substitution today, unscrupulous manufacturers and traders have always sought the means to cheat the system.

According to Mike Mitchell of Fair Seas, who specialises in product integrity, sustainability and ethical trading, food fraud remains an ever-present risk, with reports appearing frequently in the media. 

“The vulnerability of the whole food system was exposed by the horsemeat crisis in 2013, when retailers and brand owners realised that supply chain integrity was not what it appeared to be,” he said. 

When Professor Chris Elliott of Queens University Belfast led the United review of the food system vulnerability to fraud, spurred by a scandal in which horsemeat was found being used as a substitute for beef, his report recognized that seafood supply chains are particularly vulnerable. 

Mitchell has found that seafood fraud takes many guises, from species and fishery substitution, through adulteration and catch method fraud, to the alteration of durability indicators.

“Species substitution is one of the oldest tricks in the book, with the substitution of whiting for haddock, coley for cod, dab for plaice or sole, and bigeye tuna for yellowfin tuna just a few examples. This trick is often used in formats where species identification is difficult because the skin is removed, or flavours and colors are added through smoking or other value-addition processes,” he said. 

Fishery substitution has become problematic more recently, as markets place greater significance on provenance, and show preference for particular areas of capture as a point of difference.

“For example, fish from a depleted fishery or with a poor market perception may be marketed as one coming from a more abundant and well-managed fishery,” said Mitchell.

With IUU substitution, all or part of a batch may be derived from illegal, unrecorded or unregulated fisheries, including fish captured over quota, under-sized, and by unlicensed vessels. 

“This fish is difficult to detect as the illegal fish is morphologically and genetically identical to the legal part of the catch,” he said.

The addition of non-declared, non-specified species to a primary processed raw material product, such as a fish block or a formed scampi core, is classed as species adulteration. Here, the primary species is as declared, but a lower value but similar species may be added in. The addition may also be of non-fish protein such as binders derived from cereal. 

Chain of custody abuse is growing more common, as greater number of fisheries become certified by third-parties such as the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). 

“In this case the substitution or addition of fish from an uncertified fishery into a certified product threatens the integrity of the retailer or brand-owner and the sustainability certification scheme itself,” said Mitchell.

Catch method fraud, such as the incorrect description of a catch (i.e. trawl-caught fish described as line-caught), is another issue that is difficult to detect, especially in skinless fillet formats where any visual indicators of trawl fishing have been removed. 

Other areas of fraud include undeclared product extension, which uses technologies to enhance the water retention capabilities of fish muscle. Soak and injection processes can reduce the fish content of a fillet significantly, resulting in the sale of water to the consumer at the price of fish. 

Some traders deliberately sell lower-value frozen seafood at the higher price commanded by the fresh (never frozen) trade, and benefit from improved profitability by deceiving the consumer about the true nature and provenance of the product. 

Official documentation fraud in third countries is also a common issue, with disreputable operators using fake documentation for health certification and forged traceability to legal fisheries in an effort to bypass strict regulations for imports into the E.U. and the U.S.A. 

Quality enhancement treatments and additives are also often used to alter the appearance of seafood so that it appears to be of a higher quality than it is. In this case, white-fleshed fish can be made to appear whiter, and red-fleshed fish such as tuna can be made to look even redder and fresher. Such additives may be illegal for use in food, and legal ones used above maximum safe limits. 

Altering durability indications to extend product shelf-life  enables a product approaching or exceeding its original shelf-life to be sold as if it were still of prime value. However, this may mean that short shelf-life, ready-to-eat chilled products may be unsafe to consume. 

Mitchell believes that while large businesses often have skills and resources to combat food fraud in-house, along with access to assistance and intelligence through trade federation membership, many in the SME (small- and medium-enterprise) sector find this cost-prohibitive. Consequently, such businesses can find themselves more vulnerable. 

“There is a need to up-skill businesses of all sizes, to help them identify and mitigate against their upstream risk exposures. Training and education is vital,” he said. 

To address this, Mitchell has been involved in developing a new FDQ certified vocational training course, ‘Principles of Food Authenticity and Integrity’ at Grimsby Institute of Further and Higher Education with the support of Seafish. 

“This course has one- and two-day options and is an excellent introduction to the many food fraud issues that seafood companies face,” he said. 

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