Study reveals prevalence of cod mis-labelling

By Nathan Gray

- Last updated on GMT

Less expensive species of fish are being labelled and sold as Cod to improve profit, whilst endangered species of Cod are being passed off as ‘sustainably sourced’, according to new research.

Writing in the journal Fish and Fisheries,​ researchers from University College Dublin report that 28 per cent of cod products in Ireland were mislabelled, compared to seven per cent in the UK.

The findings are based on genetic identification of the contents of 226 cod products from Ireland and the UK using a DNA barcoding technique.. Species identification results were then compared against product labels.

“We found mislabelled cod products in each type of outlet, and identified that most of the mislabelled cod products were actually less expensive fish species substituted for cod and sold to consumers at a price premium,”​ said UCD’s Dr Stefano Mariani.

The authors said that there is an urgent need “to go beyond the mere documentation of the phenomenon and learn more about the origins of this problem and the nature of factors influencing its occurrence to develop solutions.”

Under EU policy guidelines labels on packaged products should allow a single item to be traced back to the processing plant that originally supplied it. However, the team said they were unable to unambiguously identify the source of the mislabelling. But, Mariani said “there are strong indications that the mislabelling is taking place at supplier and retailer level.”

Fishy labels

The authors revealed that 88.6 per cent of all mislabelled cod products identified from both Ireland and the UK were smoked, breaded or battered. They noted that this is not surprising, because “smoking, breading and battering can conceal the appearance, the smell and the taste of a fish fillet.”

“We also uncovered a more subtle form of mislabelling where cod products were mislabelled to specifically match a demand for more sustainable seafood choices,” ​explained Mariani.

“By genetically testing cod products samples purchased from supermarkets we found threatened Atlantic cod (​Gadus morhua) mislabelled and sold as ‘sustainably sourced’ Pacific cod (​Gadus macrocephalus),”​ added Dana Miller, who led the current study.

She added that all of the cod products mislabelled as ‘sustainably sourced’ Pacific cod were purchased from a single supermarket chain that operates in both Ireland and the UK.

Consumer demand

Cod is the most popular whitefish consumed in Ireland and the UK, and the demand remains high despite the fact that local Atlantic cod stocks have largely been depleted and much of the cod is now imported.

“Considering these countries operate under the same EU policies for seafood traceability and labelling, it is likely that this situation has been influenced by heightened consumer awareness in the UK, which has created an environment where mislabelling is discouraged,”​ said the authors.

Source: Fish and Fisheries
Published online ahead of print, doi: 10.1111/j.1467-2979.2011.00426.x
“Seafood mislabelling: comparisons of two western European case studies assist in defining influencing factors, mechanisms and motives”
Authors: D. Miller, A. Jessel, S. Mariani

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