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Ecolabeling is helping combat global seafood fraud and substitution

A system used by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) to label seafood seems to be effective in combating fraud and intentional product substitution. A recent study found that less than one percent of seafood products handled by the MSC were mislabeled, compared with an estimated global mislabeling rate of 30 percent.

The MSC is a nonprofit organization that is raising the standards for traceable supply chains with its ecolabeling and Chain of Custody program. Once fisheries and supply chain companies get certified, they can use the MSC’s blue label on their products.

“There is widespread concern over the vulnerability of seafood supply chains to deliberate species mislabeling and fraud. In the past, this has included some of the most loved species such as cod being substituted by farmed catfish, which can seriously undermine consumer trust and efforts to maintain sustainable fisheries,” explained study lead author and MSC expert Jaco Barendse.

The researchers used DNA barcoding to identify the species in 1,402 MSC-certified fish products from 18 countries. The study revealed that 1,389 products were labeled correctly and thirteen were not. This rate, which is less than one percent, is substantially lower than the global average of 30 percent.

Mislabeling is not always intentional and can occur when fish are incorrectly identified in the net or when mistakes are made during processing. However, fish products are often intentionally and fraudulently substituted for financial gain. Fraud also takes place when fish are caught illegally and passed off as being caught legally.

The MSC’s Chain of Custody certification requires that every seafood distributor, processor, and retailer has a documented traceback system that can correctly identify products at every step.

Rob Ogden is an expert at the TRACE Wildlife Forensics Network and the University of Edinburgh.

“The use of DNA tools to detect substitution in the fish supply chain is well-documented but until now has essentially revealed a depressing story,” said Ogden. “Our research flips this on its head and demonstrates how we can apply similar technology to validate the success of eco-labels in traceable, sustainable fishing.”

The study is published in the journal Current Biology.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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