Media watch: Spotlight on species substitution


April Forristall, assistant editor

Published on
October 13, 2011

Two reports to hit the mainstream media in early October demonstrate that seafood species substitution is, unfortunately, alive and well.

A report on revealed that Chinese seafood distributors are finding creative ways to sell counterfeit crabs. And, in Spain, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) commissioned a DNA study and found that nearly one in 10 fish samples were mislabeled. After the report, Europe’s largest department store, El Corte Inglés, pulled hake from its shelves under suspicion that it may have been mislabeled as Vietnamese pangasius or grenadier from Pacific.

These two stories mirror ones that for years have come and gone in waves in the United States. Every so often, news outlets play “gotcha” with local restaurants and retailers by collecting seafood samples and delivering them to laboratories to be tested. And, inevitably, a significant percentage comes back as mislabeled.

Is another rash of “gotcha” reports on the horizon in the United States, given the reports out of China and Spain?

“Unfortunately, I suspect that Americans, even if they hear these stories, will view them simply as stories from overseas. It might, however, precipitate at least a few investigative stories in the U.S., and maybe the timing will be right for people to start demanding certified seafood if not DNA testing,” said Eddie Diehl, director of business development with DNA sequencing firm ACGT in Wheeling, Ill. “You’ll see a newspaper article where they’ve bought fish and sent it to a lab for a custom work-up. They’ll find fraud, and that gets the public all furious. But it goes away until the next story breaks.”

ACGT broke into the seafood species identification business with the launch of its Seafood ID service last year.

“There’s an incredible amount of fraud in the seafood industry, not only with substitution of fish and shellfish but also the new initiatives with sustainability and traceability,” said Diehl.

No matter what part of the world it occurs in, it’s clear that money is the key motive behind species substitution. In China, it’s the growing economy’s increased demand for hairy crabs outweighing supplies. In Spain, the ICIJ report points to companies bumping up the bottom line during tough economic times.

“With increased economic pressures around the planet, the motivation to decrease fraud is not there, unless there’s some sort of surveillance and combination of certifications,” said Diehl.

Click here to read Forristall’s 5 October interview with Diehl.

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