Magical DNA transformations
Some years ago, I attended a conference in Malaysia. I remember one fascinating presentation describing how fish were caught near Singapore and then sent to another country for processing. The fish fillets that returned from processing had a different DNA profile than the fish that left. Interesting. One of two things were happening: it was either magic or fraud. My money is on fraud, and, coincidentally, money is the main driver behind all types of food fraud. Fast forward a few years and it is clear that the fishy business of species substitution is still prevalent. A recent report by the international organisation, Oceana (Canada division), found that 44% of fish sampled was not what was labelled; with the greatest level of misrepresentation occurring in restaurants (52%). It is a slightly different story in the UK, where the amount of fish fraud was considerably less, but still unacceptable (around 8%) and in the US, where some species such as snapper are particularly vulnerable; with one report claiming 87% of snapper samples weren’t actually snapper.
To be forewarned is forearmed
What can you do as a consumer? Unless you are buying whole fish, it is actually quite difficult to determine a fish species by looking at a fillet in a supermarket cabinet (even worse if you are trying to determine the makeup of something already coated in crumbs or batter). However, to be forewarned is to be forearmed and there are some things that you can do to scale back your risk of sinking money into catfish when you wanted cod. First up, risks often change depending upon where you shop. Buying directly from a fishmonger means that you are more likely to have access to fresh, locally caught fish, you are more likely to be able to purchase whole fish, and you have someone to complain to if you are dissatisfied with your purchase.
Substituting one species for another The days of a fishmonger in every village are gone, however, so, what should you look for in the supermarket cabinet? Understanding why species substitution may occur and then pairing that with a good dollop of cynicism will help you avoid floundering at the counter. Species are substituted when a lower value species (such as catfish) can be represented as a higher value species (such as cod). Another reason for this misrepresentation could be the production method. In the US, wild caught Atlantic salmon is prized; farmed salmon less so – for a consumer it is hard to tell if the pinky/orange fillet was from a fish that frolicked in wild waters or one that was raised in a net or tank. It used to be that you could determine if a fish was sea-run or not by the colour of its flesh (sea-run fish feed on krill and shrimp which give the flesh a pink colour, although that colour can vary according to where the fish feed), food for farm fish often now contains ingredients to mimic the wild colour. Yet another reason for substitution is our increasing awareness of sustainability of fish stocks and our desire for more ‘green’ fish – that is, fish from stocks that replenish quickly.
It’s not just substitution of species
Of course, it is not just substitution of the fish species that occurs. It can also be rewriting of the back story. As consumers, we find the notion of slavery on the high seas not a desirable marketing feature, we tend to not like the use of cruel methods such as gill (drift) nets, and we are unhappy about by-catch of marine mammals and birds. Providing misleading information about production methods means we are in the dark in our decision making, potentially paying good money for something that, while it might meet the physical expectations of the product we wanted to purchase, it might not meet our values or ethical requirements.
The pervasiveness of fish fraud means that it is difficult to cause changes in behaviour when the risk of being caught is relatively low. Prosecution requires sampling of fish, laboratory testing and then a legal process. The recent case of the “Codfather” – a Massachusetts fishing fleet owner demonstrated that an elaborate undercover operation was required to achieve a prosecution for falsifying documentation, mislabelling species, and (in this case) illegally smuggling cash.
Fixing the issue
It is unlikely that regulators will be able to offer widespread protection to consumers, and the evidence of ongoing and rampant fish fraud would tend to support this notion. While scientific methods are always improving and the ability to test DNA has progressed from laboratory based to handheld devices it will still be a long time before all fish are tested and, what’s more, it is likely that if that level of testing is required then the cost of production would increase dramatically and access to fish would have decreased. It is also interesting to ponder that while the home of fish and chips (the UK) appears to have achieved a lower rate of fraud, it is a completely different proposition in the US – perhaps it’s also time for not just fish, but also a bit of fishy know-how to cross the Atlantic.