Seafood mislabeling common across North American supply chains, study finds

New research completed at the University of Guelph in Guelph, Ontario, Canada, has found mislabeing is prevalent throughout the supply chain.

Researchers found that 32 percent of fish overall were mislabeled. The highest rate of mislabeling was at retailers (38.1 percent), followed by processing plants (27.3 percent) and importers (17.6 percent). 

Conducted in collaboration with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), the study was published in the journal Food Research International.

“We’ve been doing seafood fraud studies for a decade,” Robert Hanner, the lead author of the study and associate professor at the University of Guelph, said in a press release. “We know there are problems. But this is the first study to move beyond that and look at where the problems are happening throughout the food supply chain.”

“If you can see the name is changing across the supply system, that’s a red flag,” Hanner told SeafoodSource.

Hanner said he could not definitively prove whether some of the mislabeling is intentional, but found a “pretty significant price differential” in certain substitutions, such as farmed salmon labeled as wild salmon, tilapia labeled as red snapper, and basa labeled as haddock and cod.

“If it were just a simple mistake, then you would expect we would get the high value fish that is actually the cheap fish, which we haven’t seen,” Hanner said.

However, there are some mislabeling challenges that may not be economically motivated, such as Patagonian toothfish and Antarctic toothfish being sold under the same name. CFIA lists different common names for the two fish. 

In addition, some species imported from the United States are labeled differently in the U.S. and Canada, even though the exporter is following U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations. 

“CFIA’s fish list and FDA’s seafood list are not harmonized,” Hanner told SeafoodSource. “This creates some regulatory complexity as well and really argues for moving ahead with the labeling approach the Europeans have taken - putting the scientific name right on the product.”

CFIA collected all the samples, and then the University of Guelph conducted DNA barcoding testing, which was developed by Hanner. Some grocery chains in Canada have also been piloting the DNA barcoding technology to conduct on-site testing.

“Some retailers told us that, if it takes two weeks to get answers, it’s already in consumers’ refrigerators. They need tools to do on-site testing in real-time,” Hanner said. So, he developed a molecular probe to conduct on-site DNA testing of a particular species, helpful for importers, processors, and retailers that deal with a volume of a particular species, Hanner said.

The mislabeling rate that Hanner and colleagues found is around 15 percent lower than the mislabeling rate of 47 percent found at sushi restaurants and retailers in Los Angeles.

The lead author of that study praised the new Canadian study.

"It was very impressive to look at multiple levels in the supply chain, looking for mislabeling. It tells you that it is a systemic problem, that needs a systemic solution to figuring it out,” Demian Willette, assistant professor of biology at Loyola-Marymont University, told SeafoodSource.

A previous study completed by the University of Guelph in 2008 study found one in four seafood items were mislabeled at retailers in New York City and in the greater metropolitan Toronto area.


Want seafood news sent to your inbox?

You may unsubscribe from our mailing list at any time. Diversified Communications | 121 Free Street, Portland, ME 04101 | +1 207-842-5500