What’s In My Fish & Chips?
Overexploitation of shark meat by fisheries and coastal communities has driven a quarter of shark and ray species to near-extinction; Meanwhile, there are many opportunities in the supply chain global trade of seafood for shark products to be mislabelled as another species, making it difficult for consumers to determine if they are purchasing prohibited products. The European Union (EU) has established strict legislation mandating the appropriate labeling of seafood and the disclosure of identifying information about products, so that consumers can make informed decisions about their purchases and trace their meat through the value chain.
However, the E.U. still contends with the problem of “umbrella” terms–broad designations on foods that encompass many species. These umbrella terms make it such that shark species with different regulations on capture and conservation are mixed with other species, perhaps with less severe conservation concerns (and regulations). As a result, consumers remain unclear on the conservation status of the food they’re purchasing, and cannot confidently make a decision to avoid products that drive shark species further towards extinction.
This study investigated the extent to which the labels provided on seafood products match the species purchased. Over the course of two years, the researchers collected 117 tissue samples from 90 different retailers selling shark meat products. The products were procured from various sources throughout the United Kingdom, including Asian supermarkets, fish and chips takeaways, fishmongers, and the U.K. Customs Border Force, which had seized a shipment of dried shark fins at the U.K. border. Genomic data were extracted for each tissue sample to produce a DNA barcode identifying each unique species in the meat. Barcodes were grouped by their retail origin and the labels of the products they had come from.
The study had two key findings. First, there were significant differences in species use between takeaways and fishmongers. Fishmongers process a wide range of species, meaning mislabelling is a much greater issue in the fishmonger supply chain. Many of the fishmongers’ products were sourced locally off the coast of England. In contrast, takeaways relied heavily on pre-packaged meat from a single species, the spiny dogfish, which is imported from other parts of the world. This is also a problem, however, because spiny dogfish is a vulnerable population.
The second significant finding was that, among fishmongers, almost a third of labels failed to match the species designations allowed in the U.K. In the sale of shark fins, no species information was available at all. While mislabelling was found to be low in the collected samples, commercial designations were increasingly used as “umbrella” terms for many species. In the U.K., six different labels encompass a vast number of shark species, creating a confusing situation in which the breadth of the designation reduces how informative the labels are for consumers. The ambiguity of the labeling is dangerous for consumers who want to avoid purchasing threatened species or species that bioaccumulate high levels of mercury or lead, such as sharks.
In conclusion, the study found that, while the E.U. labeling criteria indeed reduced mislabelling, it created an alternative and equally notorious problem of umbrella-terming, in which broad and ambiguous classifications can be used by retailers to lump unrelated species under the same designation. This reduces consumer empowerment and defeats the purpose of legislation designed to protect against the trade of threatened or prohibited shark species. For animal advocates, this study underlines the importance of using DNA barcoding to unveil patterns in species utilization by seafood retailers, particularly the lack of compliance with E.U. labeling legislation, which itself needs revision to make species identification more specific for consumers.