No horsemeat, but cheating in the seafood industry remains

Published on
November 22, 2013

The title of a recently published book about the notorious horsemeat scandal could be an apt reflection of what can happen in the seafood industry. “Not on the Label: What really goes into the Food on Your Plate” by Felicity Lawrence, tells the story of a batch of 10 metric tons (MT) of ‘Polish beef trimmings’ in a Northern Irish coldstore which was found to contain 80 percent horsemeat.

Not only that but, on paper at least, the meat, which could have been up to two years old, had criss-crossed international borders before ending up with a supermarket burger manufacturer. The scandal came to light after the surprise visit of an Environmental Health Officer who noticed that packaging was torn and exposed meat was suffering from freeze-burn.

The meat was banned for being used for human consumption. However, it was then discovered that the accompanying documentation did not disclose who owned the meat or where it was going — it had been rejected for being the wrong size. Some of the boxes had Polish labels; some had no labels at all.

The bottom line, of course, as always, was price. Supermarkets and fast food chains were driving down the cost of the burgers they purchased until the price could not be met by using fresh beef mince of a reasonable standard.

Doesn’t that ring a bell with what was happening in the U.K. when breaded scampi was a popular dish in pubs and catering chains, and also sold in supermarkets and freezer centers? Frozen seafood buyers would contact breaded scampi manufacturers and ask them to quote for a contract and then award it to the supplier who offered the lowest price.

In order to reduce the price to a minimum, it was commonplace for tail pieces to be soaked overnight in a polyphosphate solution in a chill room to absorb as much liquid as possible, then moulded into whole tail shapes, frozen, excessively glazed and double breaded.

No one is suggesting that the frozen packs didn’t actually contain scampi, also known as langoustine, (Nephrops norvegicus), but given the predilection of the seafood industry to try to pass off one species as another that is more expensive — pangasius for cod in U.K. fish and chip outlets springs to mind — we cannot be sure.

But while it could be argued that scampi is no longer being processed in that fashion — at least it is to be hoped not — such cheating is still being carried on. Two weeks ago, SeafoodSource reported that European importers are not only driving down the price of frozen pangasius fillets to levels at which independent farmers cannot survive, they are demanding that processors reduce their prices by tumbling the fillets in polyphosphate solutions and then adding 30 percent glaze.

Misleading labeling is also commonplace in the seafood industry. During trade disputes, frozen shrimp has been shipped to different countries so that it can be relabelled before being exported to its original destination. Like meat, containers of frozen fish or shellfish can pass from trader to trader, again often in different countries, to achieve the best price.

Are these practices actually harming consumers rather that just misleading them? Probably not, and although the idea is abhorrent in the U.K., eating horsemeat in continental Europe is quite acceptable, but consumers don’t like to be deliberately misled. If a product is labeled beef then, not unreasonably, that is what consumers expect it to contain.

And it is just as well to remember that consumers always have the last word. They can simply stop buying the product in question.

And this is what has happened with frozen burgers. While investigations continue into the scandal, U.K. sales have slumped by a massive 43 percent.

The seafood industry would do well to take note.         

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