Why are EU labelling laws failing to protect consumers from fish fraud?

By Niamh Michail contact

- Last updated on GMT

 Vessel monitoring systems, electronic reporting, logbooks, sales notes and landing declarations ensure full traceability from net to plate, says the EC - but with fraud levels estimated at 30% many fish are clearly slipping through the net.
Vessel monitoring systems, electronic reporting, logbooks, sales notes and landing declarations ensure full traceability from net to plate, says the EC - but with fraud levels estimated at 30% many fish are clearly slipping through the net.

Related tags: Fish, Seafood, Consumer protection

With no ingredient or species information required for processed fish products, seafood fraud in Europe is prevalent – so why is EU legislation failing to protect consumers?

Up to 30% of hake products sold in Greece and Spain are actually cheaper African substitutes according to researchers from Oviedo University while the Food Safety Authority of Ireland found that nearly 20% of fish sold in Ireland was mislabelled.

The horsemeat scandal profoundly shook consumer confidence and sparked pan-European demands for stricter legislation on food labelling, but seafood labelling has garnered less media and consumer attention.

'Not vague but less strict'

Enrico Brivio, Commission spokesperson for the Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, confirmed to FoodNavigator that while a burger containing a mixture of beef, pork and chicken would have to be explicitly labelled as such, this information was voluntary for manufacturers of processed fish.

“This discrepancy can be attributed to the fact that to date there is more information regarding meat-related products rather than fish-related products.

He said that the most recent studies seemed to suggest that meat was considered of prime importance to consumers, justifying more detailed labelling while there had been little research-based evidence of consumer desire for the same level of information for fishery products.

"In any case, the labelling of these products is not vague but less strict in the general labelling rules," ​he added.

But Camille Perrin, senior food policy officer at European consumer rights group BEUC, did not agree. She said a 2012 BEUC survey​ found that 80% of consumers surveyed wanted to know where their fish came from. 

Intense pressure

For Perrin, it made no sense that origin was mandatory for fresh cod fillets but omitted from canned tuna, and that the different rules for processed and unprocessed fish​ was due to intense pressure from industry lobbies.

"BEUC campaigned for such information to be provided [in the run-up to the EU food food labelling laws of 2014] also when fish is processed. However, the fish processing industry lobbied hard making eventually their products slip through the net.”

In 2011, when the labelling laws were still being negotiated European fish processor association AIPCE-CEP issued a statement​ arguing that greater transparency could lead to confusion, mixed messages and increased costs for consumers. 

Samuel Stone, fisheries officer at the Marine Conservation Society, confirmed that political motivations may be trumping consumer interests.

”Seafood is the second highest internationally traded food commodity behind coffee, and the interests of the different parts of the industry in different countries, prosper for different reasons and is sometimes politically motivated," ​he said.

Consumers are confident…but why?

But why has such prolific fraud not attracted as much attention as mislabelled meat – is it simply that the idea of eating a different fish species is less distasteful as horsemeat labelled as beef?

Market research conducted by Leatherhead Food Research this year found that most consumers, unable to tell the difference between mackerel, plaice or cod, were willing to place a higher degree of confidence in manufacturers or fishmongers.

For Stone, cultural factors may also be at play: “I think the key difference is that in many countries, horse would never knowingly be eaten (…). Whilst some fish can … be very intelligent, they are generally only seen as food or something to have in an aquarium.”

‘Brands have seen the damage caused’

Professor Tony Hines, director of crisis management at Leatherhead, said that manufacturers were increasingly aware of the potential damage caused by fraud in the food chain .

“I believe over the last five years a significant step-change has taken place in Europe. Food retailers and brand owners have seen the damage caused by supply chain substitution, whether intentional or unknown to the brands.”

He said that authenticity tests to protect both consumers and brands were becoming routine – but with three million vessels catching nearly 100 million tonnes of fish each year, policing the world’s fishing fleet was a big job.

Camille Perrin maintained that the best way to police the industry was through origin labelling on processed fish - thus requiring fish processers to keep a tighter grip on their own supply chain. But she warned that government budget cuts across Europe meant tighter food controls were being squeezed.

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