Bluefin tuna, sole and cod were substituted by species up to 40% cheaper, found the study.
Expensive species, such as cod or sole, sold for as much as €30 or €40 per dish, can be substituted by cheap, farmed Pangasius.
DNA identification analysis was undertaken by the Catholic University of Leuven after 280 samples were gathered in more than 150 restaurants and EU institutions.
Fish fraud findings
For sushi restaurants, a 54.5% level of fraud was found (out of 21 samples), mainly due to the common substitution of premium Atlantic bluefin tuna by other cheaper tropical tuna species.
In touristic fish restaurants, fraud affected all species tested in 28.7% of cases (out of 215 samples).
Samples were collected by Oceana researchers in touristic and EU districts of Brussels between March and June 2015.
In 95% of cases bluefin tuna was sold as bigeye tuna or yellowfin tuna – both cheaper tropical species, in 11% of cases common sole was substituted for another cheaper flatfish species and in 13% of cases cod was substituted for one of seven different species; most often Pangasius or saithe.
“DNA tests show widespread seafood fraud in Brussels restaurants and even in official EU venues. Consumers are cheated and the door is left wide open to the laundering of illegal fishing products,” said Lasse Gustavsson, executive director of Oceana in Europe.
“The EU needs to clean up its fishy business, take responsibility and urgently improve traceability and labelling of seafood.”
Call to action
Oceana said EU governments should guarantee a traceability scheme and clear labelling that allows for informed choices about which seafood is safe and sustainably sourced from boat to plate.
It also advised consumers tocheck prices with each fish having a corresponding environment cost associated. If a seafood item is being sold at a price that seems too good to be true, it probably is, the advocacy organization added.
Oceana said fish substitution is also an environmental problem as illegal fish and/or threatened and protected species can enter the market.
This carries a health risk for consumers since non-traceable fish may not have been subjected to regular health and sanitary checks, it added.
Testing focused on commonly served fish species under the denomination of cod, common sole and bluefin tuna to verify the exact species sold and its origin in comparison to EU and Belgian law.
Oceana said Pangasius farmed in Southeast Asia is the most profitable option for substitutions. With a price tag of €4/kg in supermarkets, and cheaper at wholesale, its white flesh is well suited for fraud by swapping with more expensive cod or sole sold between €20-25 in restaurants.
“Negligent, if not fraudulent, mislabelling is wide-spread across Brussels. Generally fish labels on menus were too simplistic to respect minimum requirements of commercial denomination. The multiplicity of designations is often confusing for consumers,” said the group.
“Also, many restaurant managers/owners take deliberate advantage of the system by selling the wrong fish with the intention of financial gain through consumer deception.”
Oceana discovered that 38% of fish served in EU institution canteens to the EU Parliament and EU Commission was different than what was ordered.
“The first step for EU decision-makers is to realise that this is an EU-wide problem and they, as consumers themselves, are just as vulnerable as the rest of us,” said Gustavsson.
“As EU fish resources become scarcer due to overexploitation, the market demand is becoming satisfied with imported products or cheaper substitutes, deceiving consumers.”
DNA extraction and identification was done by Biogenomics (Catholic University of Leuven) through the “COI barcoding method”. The marker was then checked against the Barcode of Life Data Systems (BOLD) database which has more than 11,000 fish species recorded.
A total of 197 samples were identified to the species level, 80 to the genus level and three did not match any record in the database.