Sushi mislabeling study, used to support new IUU rule, knocked by NFI
Some researchers and environmental groups are using a new seafood mislabeling study to call for stricter government rules, including NOAA’s new controversial illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) traceability rule – the target of a lawsuit brought by the National Fisheries Institute and several major suppliers.
The new study, published in the 11 January issue of Conservation Biology, found that, from 2012 through 2015, 47 percent of the sushi in sushi restaurants was mislabeled. UCLA and Loyola Marymount University researchers tested the DNA of 364 common fish ordered at 26 Los Angeles restaurants.
“Half of what we’re buying isn’t what we think it is,” said Paul Barber, a UCLA professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and the study’s senior author. “Fish fraud could be accidental, but I suspect that in some cases the mislabeling is very much intentional, though it’s hard to know where in the supply chain it begins. I suspected we would find some mislabeling, but I didn’t think it would be as high as we found in some species,” Barber added.
Despite increased regulatory measures and media attention, seafood mislabeling continues to be prevalent, the researchers wrote.
“This study points to the importance of measures to improve traceability and monitoring to reduce the prevalence of fish fraud,” said Sarah Sikich, vice president of the environmental group Heal the Bay. “As a foodie mecca, Los Angeles wields enormous influence. Fish fraud at L.A.-area restaurants and grocery stores can pose health threats if substitute fish are contaminated or contain allergens, thwart consumers who are trying to buy sustainable, and impede fisheries policy.”
However, the study results do not reflect the need for more government regulation of the seafood industry, Gavin Gibbons, vice president of communications for the National Fisheries Institute, told SeafoodSource.
“We don’t need new laws to make species substitution and menu mislabeling more illegal. It’s already illegal,” he said. “This is an issue of enforcement. More enforcement, less fish fraud.”
While NFI does not question the validity of the study, the researchers “only did half of the work necessary to make the effort really worthwhile,” Gibbons said.
“Many of the headlines claim the results point to ‘fish fraud’ and ‘species substitution’, but that’s not what they’ve found here. They’ve uncovered menu mislabeling. They didn’t even try to determine origin of the fraud beyond that,” Gibbons said.
In fact, it’s very likely that the source of the fraud was the restaurants that were the focus of the study, especially since a previous multi-year seafood DNA investigation by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) “found an overwhelming majority of seafood labeled correctly at wholesale,” Gibbons said.
“NFI members are at the forefront of anti-fish fraud efforts and we support efforts to crack down on it. But the reality is there is a limited use for simple studies that find that the DNA doesn’t match what’s printed on the menu,” Gibbons said. “Without doing the hard work to follow the fish from the dining room to the back-of-the-house to the supplier, all you have is confirmation of menu mislabeling. If you’re putting resources into these types of efforts, perhaps it’s time to move past the DNA-menu ‘gotcha game’ and close the loop on these ‘investigations.”
In the UCLA and Loyala study, fish labeled as “tuna” was almost always tuna, but halibut and snapper were almost always mislabeled.
“All halibut and red snapper orders failed the DNA test, and in 9 out of 10 cases, diners ordering halibut were served flounder,” according to a UCLA statement.
Around four out of every 10 halibut orders were substituted with species of flounder considered overfished or near-threatened. However, salmon was mislabeled in six out of 47 orders.
For tuna, only the “bluefin tuna” label was accurate after testing. However, out of every nine yellowfin tuna dishes, seven were actually a different kind of tuna. Yellowfin was usually substituted for bigeye, “a vulnerable and overexploited species,” according to researchers.
The sushi restaurants involved in the study were not named, partially because “most sushi restaurants would fare similarly,” Barber said.
Also, Barber believes that the goal is not to point fingers, but to make people aware of the larger issue.
“I think it would be really cool to work with some restaurants to test their shipments so we can start to work out where in the supply chain the fraud is taking place,” he said. “I would love to know what the restaurants think they’re getting from the suppliers.”