EJF study uncovers widespread seafood mislabeling in South Korea

Published on
May 6, 2019

A DNA study undertaken by the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), has revealed that mislabeling of seafood in South Korea is common across several key species. 

During a year-long investigation in 2018, more than one-third (34.8 percent) of samples collected at restaurants, fish markets, and supermarkets in and around the capital, Seoul, turned out not to be what they were being sold as, analysis showed. 

Selling fraudulent fish has become big business for unscrupulous operators in South Korea, which has one of the highest rates of seafood consumption in the world, at 60 kilograms per person, per year. 

However, its seafood industry suffers from a severe lack of governance and transparency, which allows fraud to proliferate, according to EJF. This type of deception harms ocean wildlife and risks public health, and the lack of transparency means it can also be associated with illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing, and serious human rights abuses.

“This rampant seafood fraud denies consumers the chance to make informed environmental and ethical choices,” EJF Executive Director Steve Trent said.

EJF’s study, which collected more than 300 representative samples from 12 at-risk seafood species, was undertaken in response to an increasing number of media reports and tip-offs about mislabeling and the serious nature of seafood fraud in South Korean supply chains. 

Evidence was found that mislabeling was mostly deliberate, with cheaper species passed off as more expensive, premium seafood in the majority of cases. 

For example, over half of the eel and skate samples labeled as a domestic product were found to have been imported and therefore should have been sold at a much lower price. Swordfish, substituted for bluefin tuna, was on sale for four to five times its real value. 

Just under one-third (27.8 percent) of meat labeled as minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) was found to be substituted, sometimes by the protected finless porpoise, and meat generically labeled as whale often turned out to be dolphin, which can contain dangerously high mercury levels and put consumer health at risk.

Fleshy prawn (Fenneropenaeus chinensis) had the highest rates of mislabeling, with all 33 samples identified by DNA tests as a different species. More than half of the samples of Japanese eel (Anguilla japonica), common octopus, (Octopus vulgaris) and mottled skate (Raja pulchra) were also mislabeled.

Some of the illegal practices are associated with imported products from China, but there is also public concern that Japanese seafood affected by post-Fukushima radiation will enter the supply chain. Without full traceability it is impossible for people to know exactly what they are buying, EJF said.

Korean authorities introduced a voluntary bar code seafood traceability system (STS) in 2008 in response to widespread criticism, but its uptake is still low more than a decade later.  

EJF’s report on the DNA study makes a number of recommendations, including that STS is made mandatory for a wide variety of species at risk of mislabeling, so that the country’s seafood offerings can be made fully traceable. 

The organization also recommends the government extend its Catch Documentation Scheme to all seafood imports, to prevent illegally fished or mislabeled products from entering the Korean market. Trent said that the South Korean government should follow EJF’s 10 principles for global transparency to assist it in making significant improvements to its seafood industry. 

EJF Deputy Director Max Schmid told SeafoodSource that tackling seafood fraud is important in South Korea, but also globally. 

“The level of fraud in the species we sampled was far higher than the 20 percent level found in other countries by Oceana in 2016, so this is an issue that should be an important priority for Korea to resolve,” Schmid said. “We will now be sharing our report and film with consumer groups and retailers. Korean consumers are victims of fraud when they overpay for a species that they are not intending to purchase. There are also public health risks as government authorities struggle to contain food safety problems where there is mislabeling taking place. It is therefore in the direct interests of consumers and the retailers that they buy from, to pressure for increased traceability and transparency.” 

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