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DNA Tests Bolster Credibility of MSC-Labeled Seafood

Image courtesy of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).

Mislabeled seafood products have become a widespread problem: A recent study found that across 4,500 global samples, 30 percent of seafood products are mislabeled. The issue threatens reputable and sustainable fisheries and seafood traders, and can allow illegal and unregulated fishing practices to go undetected. Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing has been estimated at 11-26 million tonnes of landed fish each year, representing losses of $10-23.5 billion to the fishing industry.

Mislabeling of seafood has also led to significant distrust in labels among consumers. 55 percent of seafood consumers doubt that the seafood they consume is as it is labeled on the package, and 65 percent want to know that their fish can be traced back to a known and trusted source, according to early results from the latest global survey from GlobeScan on behalf of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). Responses from more than 16,000 seafood consumers across 21 countries found that 63 percent of those purchasing seafood look to ecolabels as a trusted source of information.

“High profile food scares such as the European horsemeat scandal have left many consumers wary of claims made on food packaging. Food fraud undermines the efforts of reputable fishers and traders and has led to wide recognition of the need for credible traceability in the supply chain,” MSC CEO Rupert Howes said. “The MSC Chain of Custody program is one of the most recognised and widely used ways of providing this reassurance to seafood consumers and businesses.”

To back up their claims, the MSC commissioned the Wildlife DNA Forensics unit at Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture (SASA) to conduct DNA tests on a random sample of 256 MSC-labeled seafood products from 16 countries. The results are captured in a new report, Ocean to Plate: How DNA testing helps to ensure traceable sustainable seafood, released today.

The report suggests that consumers are right to trust the MSC’s label: DNA testing showed that 99.6 percent of MSC-labeled products are correctly labelled. There was only one mislabeled sample, marked as containing southern rock sole when it in fact contained northern rock sole. The species are very similar and are both MSC-certified. The MSC has taken action to ensure that the documentation error that led to the mislabeling does not reoccur.

Commenting on the results, Howes said, “The results of the MSC’s DNA testing program are very positive. Seafood sold with the blue MSC label can be traced back to a sustainable source, and our robust chain of custody requirements provide reassurance that it’s correctly labeled.”

The MSC has launched a campaign, #OceanToPlate, to highlight the success, including a new animation showing the journey of MSC-certified seafood from ocean to plate:

DNA testing is beginning to catch on as a method of vetting suppliers and product authenticity outside of the seafood market, as well. Consumer demand for transparency is having a ripple effect across the food sector: For example, brands such as Kraft Heinz and Mars have begun changing their products’ ingredients, and Campbell Soup pledged to disclose GMOs on its labels. However, transparency is especially pertinent to the seafood industry, which continues to grapple with issues such as over-fishing, bycatch and modern slavery.

“By preferentially purchasing sustainable seafood, consumers are rewarding responsible fishers and their efforts to safeguard our marine resources. A traceable supply chain, from the consumer back to sustainable fisheries, is fundamental to consumers' trust and confidence in the seafood they’re buying,” WWF’s Smart Fishing Initiative leader Alfred Schumm said. “The MSC’s requirements for traceability are essential if we are to maintain healthy fish populations and ocean ecosystems."

MSC-labeled seafood has been on the increase over the past several years; over 20,000 seafood products worldwide carry the blue MSC label. More than 280 fisheries in over 35 countries are certified to the MSC Fisheries Standard, with a combined annual seafood production of nearly 9 million tonnes – close to 10 percent of annual global yields.

“Our clients go to great lengths to improve their practices to meet this standard,” said Martin Gill, Managing Director at Acoura Marine, an independent auditor accredited to certify organizations to supply MSC-certified products. “While at times it’s not easy for them, once they achieve certification they have all been able to benefit both commercially and reputationally.

“The MSC label is one which suppliers are extremely proud to have and these DNA results not only testify to their efforts to improve traceability, they also show us how committed they are in the aims and objectives of the MSC as an organization.”

Hannah Furlong is an Editorial Assistant for Sustainable Brands, based in Canada. She is researching the circular economy as a Master's student in Sustainability Management at the University of Waterloo and holds a Bachelor's in Environment and Business Co-op. Hannah… [Read more about Hannah Furlong]

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