UN release report on ‘vulnerability’ of fish food chain to fraud

By Will Chu

- Last updated on GMT

A United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) report thinks the fisheries and aquaculture sectors are among the most vulnerable to food fraud such as species substitution and mislabelling.

Written by Professor Alan Reilly, former chief executive officer of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, the report​ highlights the harm done to consumer confidence in the food industry.

The report discusses the fallout from the horsemeat scandal of 2013, in which international food chains were left exposed to fraud and organised crime, resulting in unwanted attention on the safety, quality and authenticity of foods exported to the global market.

“Public health is endangered when fish species that are toxic are substituted for non-toxic varieties,”​ Professor Reilly said.

“Public health is also put at risk when farmed or freshwater species from polluted watercourses are substituted for marine fish.”

The extent of the problem was outlined by Interpol, which in 2015 identified fish traded internationally was the third highest risk category of foods with the potential for fraud.

This report follows 2013 findings by the European Commission, which classifies fish in the second-highest category for fraud.

Determining fish origins

The problem appeared to be increasingly widespread, exacerbated by the difficulty in detecting the origins of fish processed into fillets, ready-to-eat breaded products, or pre-prepared fish meals.

Current traceability systems also rely on a paper trail that documents data such as geographical origin, species, and registration details of vessels.

“Experience from previous food fraud incidents, such as the European horsemeat scandal, shows that such documentation can be falsified,” ​the report said.

The report suggested a science-based approach to the problem, with a traceability system put forward that could identify the fish species and its geographical origin, as well as distinguishing between wild-capture and farmed products.

“While DNA barcoding using the mitochondrial cytochrome c oxidase subunit 1 has been established as a reliable method to identify fish to species level, it has certain drawbacks for use in the identification of geographical origin of fish species,”​ the report said.

“Hence, DNA analysis based on next-generation sequencing and other advanced genetic techniques have been proposed in order to identify the origin or provenance of fish catches. These methods need further development before their use in routine official food control programmes."

Greater cooperation required

Other approaches put forward to address the issue include greater cooperation between food control authorities and law enforcement agencies, both nationally and internationally.

Additionally, food regulations would need to be strengthened and penalties made proportionate to criminal infringements, the paper postulated. 

The report also wanted to see fish labelling regulations providing sufficient data for consumers to be able to make informed choices about the products they purchase.

“The introduction of new analytical technologies for fish species identification means that food inspectors and laboratory staff will need to be adequately trained,”​ the report added.

“Food inspectors will also need to be trained in the investigation of fraud.”

The publication also identified the importance of the Codex Alimentarius Commission’s involvement, emphasising the need for the organisation to work with countries to develop international guidelines.

These standards would identify, manage and alleviate fraud in the fisheries sector and standardise food safety management systems for future assessment.

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