Josh Donlan: Mislabeling more complex than believed, needs targeted solutions

Published on
March 4, 2022
Josh Donlan, founder of Advanced Conservation Strategies and a research fellow at Cornell University Lab of Ornithology.

Seafood fraud or mislabeling is a misunderstood and thinly researched problem requiring more input from seafood companies, according to academic and ecologist Josh Donlan, the founder and director of Advanced Conservation Strategies, which describes itself as providing “design-driven solutions for people and the environment.” Splitting his time between Spain and the U.S. state of Utah, Donlan is also a research fellow at the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology. SeafoodSource talked to Donlan about his research into the origins and complexities of mislabeling.

SeafoodSource: What are the key difference and similarities in the E.U. and U.S. approach to tackling mislabeling and seafood fraud?

Donlan: The U.S. government’s approach to tackling mislabeling is evolving, with the latest policy being SIMP [Seafood Import Monitoring Program] and even more recent dialogue about implementing changes to the SIMP. In general, the E.U.’s approach is more progressive, both in terms of traceability and labeling. For example, mandatory seafood labeling in the E.U. includes the scientific name, production method, the FAO fishing area where the seafood was caught, the name of the fishing vessel or aquaculture production unit, and fishing gear [used].

Unfortunately, however, we don’t really know what differences exist between the U.S. and E.U. mislabeling landscape. A proper comparative study has not been conducted. Some of our work, that that combined all available mislabeling studies before 2018 into a common statistical framework, suggests there are no differences in overall mislabeling rate between the U.S. and several European countries. But the data is limited due to lack of proper study designs and small sample-sizes at the product level. This results in highly uncertain mislabeling estimates. More work is needed both in terms of properly characterizing mislabeling landscapes, as well as policy analyses.

SeafoodSource: What additional actions do you feel are required from a legislative and an enforcement perspective to limit and prevent mislabelling?

Donlan: I would argue that we don’t have enough data to make informed recommendations. Some are calling for traceability for 100 percent of seafood products. While that might sound good at face-value, implementing traceability can be costly and often requires extensive coordination within complex and sometimes informal supply chains. There are also concerns regarding the burden of information disclosure and potential inequities. Why trace a seafood product if there is evidence that is not mislabeled and is not having ecological, economic, or social impacts?

Unfortunately, most mislabeling studies are too small and opportunistic to inform decision-making. The work they we have done sheds light on this issue. First, most seafood products have mislabeling rates much lower than what is commonly claimed in the media. Second, some seafood products however, do have high mislabeling rates. Third, mislabeling rates alone are insufficient to characterize impacts. For example, a product that has a low mislabeling rate, but is consumed in very high volumes can result in a large amount of mislabeled consumption. Fourth, despite lower rates that often claimed, mislabeling is having negative consequences for marine populations and fisheries management.

SeafoodSource: What are some seafood species with higher and lower mislabelling rates?

Donlan: Study-level mislabeling estimates (i.e., a few samples of different seafood species grouped together) are usually reported in the media and often lead to misleading statements, such as “30 percent of seafood is mislabeled.” We estimated mislabeling rates for 28 seafood products, which each had sufficient studies and samples to do so. The average mislabeling rate was eight percent; 20 products had a rate of eight percent –for example Pacific cod, swordfish, and mahi. Second, some seafood products do have high mislabeling rates, such as northern red snapper, grouper, and European hake.

For seafood consumed in the United States, substituted products, compared to the product on the label, come from fisheries that have less healthy stocks and greater impacts on other species – in other words, bycatch. They also come from fisheries with less-effective management. But we need properly designed studies and monitoring programs in order to make evidence-based recommendations for legislation and regulation.

As opposed to a one-sized traceability [system] for all, I would argue for a more targeted and cost-effective strategy – using a product-by-product approach. Some products clearly need traceability and more enforcement to reduce mislabeling impacts. But other products do not. By combining a database of all mislabeling studies with statistical modelling, it is possible to conduct analyses that could inform policy makers on the design of regulations and monitoring programs that could cost-effectively limit mislabeling. Unfortunately, this work has not been done and is not even being promoted. Instead, recommendations are often being made from mislabeling claims that are often not peer-reviewed from the scientific community and are based on small sample-sizes when mislabeling testing is broken down by product.

SeafoodSource: What is an example of such an overdependence on small sample-sizes?

Donlan: We looked at 141 mislabeling studies published before 2018, which included more than 27,000 samples. But the most common sample-size for a specific product in those samples was a mere three samples. It is common to flip a coin three times and get two heads, but that does not mean the probability of getting heads is 66 percent. Likewise, if I test three samples of cod and two are mislabeled, that does mean the mislabeling rate is 66 percent. 

SeafoodSource: How has the rise of China as a major market for seafood changed the global dynamic in terms of mislabelling as a global seafood industry problem?

Donlan: While data is scarce, some evidence suggests that the Chinese seafood market is enabling mislabeling. A study [in January 2022] estimated that approximately 75 percent of China’s seafood imports are processed and reexported. For some species, like cod and haddock, exports are substantially higher than imports plus Chinese production. This could be a sign of mislabeling. The global nature of seafood trade and the growing practice of re-exporting in China, at the minimum, creates the enabling conditions for widespread mislabeling. But the Chinese mislabeling landscape is largely unknown because of the lack of mislabeling forensic studies that have been conducted – which are in the single digits – and all have small sample-sizes.

SeafoodSource: Has the seafood industry worked to tackle the problem of mislabeling, and how effective have such initiatives been?

Donlan: Unfortunately, there are too few examples. Gulf Wild is a great example – designed and run by fishermen. More common are confrontational approaches pinning seafood sustainability advocates against the private sector. Seafood mislabeling is commonly assumed to be primarily motivated by the desire to label a lesser-value product as a higher-value one. While intentional mislabeling for profit clearly happens, our research suggests that it is not the only mechanism behind mislabeling.

We analyzed 46 seafood products that had both price and mislabeling data. Across all of those products, the difference between the price of the labeled seafood product and its substitute when it was not mislabeled was not different than zero. The difference was positive for some products – for example, sturgeon, tuna, and salmon. It was zero for many, including shrimp and hake, and even negative for a few products. Hence, we still know very little about the human behaviors behind seafood mislabeling, but it is clear it is more complex that a simple mislabeling for profit incentive. More holistic approaches that include consumer and industry engagement and well-designed and targeted testing could reduce seafood mislabeling and improve transparency related to impacts of seafood product consumption.

SeafoodSource: How can the industry better address the seafood mislabelling problem?

Donlan: Voluntary traceability programs are on the rise, which is a good sign. Traceability has gone from playing a minor and inconspicuous role in the seafood industry to being at the center of the sustainable seafood movement. But in my view, more proactive, cross-sector collaborations are needed to effectively address seafood mislabeling. There are opportunities to work with the seafood sector to co-design voluntary mislabeling certification programs. In more cases than not, I think the incentives align between scientists and advocates working on seafood fraud and retail seafood. In particular, I think there are some exciting opportunities with the restaurant sector. But in order to be successful, programs will need to align with restauranteurs’ views and constraints.

For example, we have been working with seafood restauranteurs in Chile on designing prototypes of a voluntary traceability program. This work provides some insights into the many challenges of implementing such program in seafood restaurants – a setting where such programs may be desirable yet often inhibited by conflicting goals. While Chilean restauranteurs are willing to participate in voluntary traceability programs, they also believe that seafood is already too expensive, is becoming an elite resource, and high prices are inhibiting its access. These types of socio-economic factors are often ignored with thinking about the design of programs to tackle sustainability challenges like seafood mislabeling. Restauranteurs are risk-averse with respect to drastic changes due to the low profit margins under which they operate. Thus, in my view, any program to reduce mislabeling will only be successful if co-produced with the end users.

Photo courtesy of Josh Donlan

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