Unibond CEO continues to dispute report claiming China's processing sector facilitates mislabeling

Unibond Seafood International CEO David Jiang

A prominent Chinese seafood processor that took issue with data in an academic report suggesting China's processing industry is mislabeling species to earn more money in the reexport industry is continuing to assert that the report uses flawed interpretations of data. 

The report, authored by a joint U.S.-Norwegian group of academic economists and scientists, was released earlier this year. It claims that the Chinese seafood processing industry threatens seafood sustainability by facilitating mislabeling and determined that China’s exports of cod and haddock are 35 percent higher than its imports – suggesting substitution by “cheaper whitefish such as blue whiting, for which there are not recorded exports.”  

The study detailed how the huge Chinese processing for re-export industry, based on low cost and scale, accounts for 75 percent of the country’s seafood imports.

The report said its findings “…largely contradict the narrative that Chinese domestic demand is driving massive Chinese imports because imports are positively correlated with economic and population growth, although some imported species like Atlantic salmon primarily go to the domestic market.”

The report also calculated that 11 percent of the global seafood trade consists of product counted as an import to China, and then as an import to the country to which it’s shipped post-processing.

Unibond Seafood International CEO David Jiang, however, has continued to question the data and comments in the report. In particular, he pointed to the claim that China’s exports of cod and haddock are higher than its imports, and told SeafoodSource the assertion there is substitution in the industry is based on a misrepresentation of the facts.

“In our industry, to produce headed and gutted (H&G) frozen fish – for example cod – from live fish, the yield is approximately 70 percent, and to make frozen fillets from H&G the yield is approximately 70 percent,” Jiang said.

Jiang said China’s official import and export data for cod and haddock for 2018 to 2021 indicates the relationship between imported and exported products.

“It is clearly indicated that the export fish fillet volume is a perfect match with the headed and gutted fish import in line with the industrial yield factor, which is 70 percent,” he said. 

The data provided by Jiang showed China imported 1,249,694 metric tons (MT) of H&G cod from 2015 to 2021, derived from a live weight of 1,785,277 MT at a 70 percent conversion rate. In the same period, China exported 874,341 MT of cod fillet which, Jiang said, is 70 percent of total live weight.

On cod, Jiang said, the figure for imported live weight fish is almost perfectly matched with the exported figure.

“It is quite similar in the case for haddock too. The H&G Haddock conversion ratio to fillet is about 57 to 60 percent,” Jiang said.

However, one of the report’s main authors, University of Florida Professor Frank Asche, said the new data still matches with the report.

“As far as I can see, the data that is shown in the table [provided by Jiang] is by product weight, and then exports are of course significantly lower than imports as the imports are mostly whole fish while the exports are fillets,” Asche said. “However, when converted to whole fish equivalents so that the ‘fish weight’ is comparable using FAO’s data, one gets our results.”

According to the research, only a few species groups produced by China are primarily export-oriented, including sardines, mackerel, octopus, and tilapia, “and a few species are primarily imported for domestic consumption, such as Atlantic salmon, or as in the case of blue whiting, most likely exported under a different name.”

The academic report suggests China’s processing-for-export model has damaged fishing communities and threatened the sustainability of the seafood industry elsewhere by directly and inadvertently facilitating mislabeling. By creating less economic value in other countries’ processing sectors, China’s efforts are undermining social sustainability globally, the report claimed.  

Photo courtesy of Groundfish Forum


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