TThe first thing that stands out about the wild salmon fillet that Dane Chauvel shows me is its color: a deep red that, even with FaceTime, makes my mouth water. The second notable thing is that it is definitely salmon.
This may not seem like a debatable fact. Chauvel is a co-founder of Organic Ocean Seafood in Vancouver, Canada, housed in a historic building at the mouth of the 854-mile (1,375 km) Fraser River, one of Canada’s premier salmon farms. The company caters to many high-end restaurants and wild salmon accounts for a large part of its sales.
But as the exclusive Guardian Seascape report showing the extent of global seafood fraud has shown, it’s not always so easy to tell what your fish really is. In the analysis of 44 studies around the world, more than one in three shellfish samples out of the 9,000 tested were mislabeled.
Chauvel is not surprised by the revelations. “The fishing industry is a disaster,” he says. “It is dysfunctional.”
However, you can prove that the salmon in your hands is salmon, because the fish has been included in a random DNA testing program, the first in the world.
To remove any doubt about its seafood for high-end customers, Organic Ocean worked with the University of Guelph in Ontario, where researchers pioneered DNA “barcoding” to identify living species. Together they created a separate authentication program for Organic Ocean fish, which even identifies source rivers.
DNA barcoding involves sequencing a short, specific section of a particular gene from a sample and comparing it to a barcode library of known species. The process can be compared to the way barcodes identify products in the store.
Chauvel shows me, on FaceTime, the company’s cold room. Here, stacks of large blue storage boxes are filled with processed and frozen salmon, halibut, red cod and tuna.
Many of these fish were caught by First Nations communities, in what Chauvel calls “a happy partnership based on shared values of conservation and environmental stewardship.” Indigenous commercial fishermen handle their catch with care, preserving the beautiful skin color of salmon and creating a narrative of reconciliation: For nearly 100 years, First Nations communities were largely banned from commercial fishing in the river Fraser and other great rivers of British Columbia.
The fish in the blue boxes were identified when caught and tagged with unique identification, including their species name, to be traced during processing.
“Without telling us anything, someone from Guelph shows up and takes random samples from here,” explains Chauvel. The samples are sent to the Hanner Laboratory at the University of Guelph for DNA analysis. The laboratory publishes the results on the Organic Ocean public website.
Allowing a third party to publish their findings online improves transparency, he says. “I hope that the use of DNA becomes more common in the industry. It has been a great business advantage for us. “
Robert Hanner, who runs the Guelph lab, would happily perform DNA authentication for others in the fishing industry, but says companies are not interested in voluntary testing. Nor has there been much interest from Canada’s food regulator, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), even though DNA identification has been used since 2008 to document the widespread mislabeling of seafood in Canada. . “Nothing has changed in terms of regulation or compliance,” says Hanner.
That might seem surprising, given that the CFIA recently revealed mislabeling in seafood supply chains. Working with Hanner, the regulator found that 20% of the imported seafood analyzed were already mislabeled when they arrived in Canada. Mislabeling increased to 27% at the wholesale level and 40% at the retail level.
“Wherever we do tests in Canada, we find that 25-40% of the samples are mislabeled,” says Hanner. And it’s never a higher-cost species labeled lower-cost. “This is not just a problem in Canada. Is international “.
Due to the sustained high level of mislabeling, Hanner believes that organized crime has infiltrated the fishing industry. A single shipping container full of farmed pangasius catfish fillets sold as red snapper, or some other higher value fish, can generate a profit of C $ 1 million (£ 570,000). In the unlikely event the fraud is discovered, the fine could be C $ 50,000, he says.
The weak traceability standards of Canada’s seafood supply chain mean that people often don’t get the fish they paid for. They are also spending an estimated C $ 160 million a year unknowingly buying illegal fish, according to a new Oceana Canada report, an international organization focused on the oceans.
“Eating less fish is not the solution,” says Josh Laughren, CEO of Oceana Canada. “Fish is an important and healthy source of protein.” Rather, he says, the problem can only be solved by governments through regulation and enforcement.
Oceana would like to see traceability from ship to plate – accurate tracking and identification from harvest to point of sale, as provided by Organic Ocean. Random checks throughout the supply chain using DNA barcodes would help give consumers more confidence in what they are buying.
Although Canada has committed to establishing traceability standards in 2019, it has yet to act on it. The EU and US have traceability standards, but they rarely use DNA barcodes.
Analysis of the most recent studies shows that the EU and US mislabeling rates are only slightly better than Canada’s, although the EU’s labeling requirements are considered the strongest in the world, requiring the scientific names of the fish species and the geographical origin, among other information. But while there is slightly less mislabeling in EU supermarkets, the problem persists in small markets and restaurants, says Donna-Mareè Cawthorn, a researcher at the University of Mpumalanga in South Africa.
Cawthorn’s Study 2018 found that over 80% of samples sold as snapper in markets and restaurants in various UK cities were incorrectly labeled. The “snapper” accounted for a staggering 38 different species, including many reef-dwelling species that are likely threatened by habitat degradation and overfishing.
“It’s not just a few bad guys,” says Cawthorn. “The global fishing industry is dysfunctional. That makes it very difficult to manage fish stocks sustainably. “
A good place to start would be to have a single common name for each species. Something like 12,000 different species are sold as shellfish, and each species can have numerous common names. The EU requirement to use the unique scientific name of the species is the correct approach, says Cawthorn, but it must be met.
Certification programs can also help reduce mislabeling. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), the world’s leading seafood certifier, recently used DNA barcodes to verify that 99% of the 1,409 products sampled between 2009 and 2016 were correctly labeled. The MSC program works, Cawthorn says, but it is voluntary and expensive to join, though he acknowledges that MSC is trying to find ways to help small-scale fishers in the developing world get certified.
In Norway, some seafood companies They have started to use blockchain technology to create a transparent and accountable record of the provenance of each of their fish. Blockchain can guarantee traceability, but tracking a fish’s journey is pointless if it was mislabeled early on, meaning that DNA authentication is still required. And this effort remains voluntary.
Until public pressure is put on the market, truly transparent companies like Organic Ocean will remain outliers. “It’s interesting that many people know and care more about where the wine they drink comes from than what seafood they eat,” says Cawthorn.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism