DNA tests show 99% of MSC labelled seafood 'exactly what it says on pack'

Three years after the ‘horsegate’ scandal exposed widespread mislabelling of processed meat products in the UK and Europe, a survey has found that more than half (55%) of shoppers sometimes doubt that the seafood they buy is what it says on the packet. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)’s survey of more than 16,000 seafood consumers in 21 countries found that two thirds (65%) want to know that their fish can be traced back to a known and trusted source, with six in ten (63%) saying they are more likely to trust products that carry an ecolabel.

The findings were revealed today as the MSC released results from independent DNA testing, showing that more than 99.6%* of MSC labelled seafood products are correctly labelled – in contrast to studies that have found around 30% mislabelling in the seafood industry**.  The Wildlife DNA Forensics unit at Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture (SASA) conducted DNA tests on a sample of 257 MSC labelled seafood products from 16 countries and found just one was mislabelled – a packet of northern rock sole that was labelled as southern rock sole.

Toby Middleton, Programme Director for MSC in the UK & North Atlantic, said: “High profile cases of food fraud, such as horsemeat found in beef burgers, has left shoppers wary of the claims made on food packaging. Seafood is particularly vulnerable to food fraud, because it can be hard to tell the difference between similar-looking species, and fish is often handled and processed by several suppliers on the journey from ocean to plate. A recent academic study found that globally, as much as 30% of seafood could be mislabelled, but with DNA testing verifying that more than 99% of MSC labelled products are correctly labelled, shoppers can buy seafood with the blue MSC label with confidence, knowing it’s traceable to a sustainable source, and exactly what it says on the pack.”

All MSC certified seafood comes from fisheries which have been independently certified to the MSC’s science-based standard for sustainable fishing, widely recognised as the world’s most credible and robust seafood sustainability certification. Fishermen, processors, retailers and chefs that handle MSC certified seafood must follow strict requirements to ensure that seafood carrying the blue tick label is segregated from non-MSC certified seafood, traceable from ocean to plate, and correctly labelled. International brands and retailers including IKEA, McDonalds, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and Lidl, use the MSC Chain of Custody Standard to ensure the integrity of the products they sell.

Tracy Cambridge, Fisheries and Seafood Manager at WWF-UK, said: “When shoppers choose seafood with the MSC ecolabel, they reward fishermen who are committed to sustainable sourcing and safeguarding the marine environment. These test results should give consumers confidence that MSC labelled seafood is traceable from ocean to plate, so they can trust what it says on the packet, and they can trust that their purchase is ensuring healthy fish stocks for the future."

This was the fifth round of independent DNA testing to be commissioned by the MSC. The last two rounds of testing, carried out in 2012 and 2013, also found less than 1% mislabelling of MSC labelled seafood. There are more than 20,000 MSC labelled products available in around 100 countries.

* 99.6% were correctly labelled. Of 257 samples taken, one failed to yield a result after four attempts. One other sample, labelled as containing southern rock sole, was discovered to contain northern rock sole. The species are very similar and both are MSC certified. A full investigation found errors with documentation in the supply chain. Actions have now been taken to ensure that this error does not reoccur.

** Pardo, Jimenez and Perez-Villarreal (2016) compared a total of 51 papers on seafood labelling and found an average mislabelling rate of 30%.

Research figures were provided by independent research and evidence-led insights company, GlobeScan. The total sample size was 16,876 consumers (including 1,000 UK consumers) who said they, or someone in their household, had purchased fish or seafood in the last two months. Respondents came from representative samples in 21 countries:  Australia; Austria; Belgium; Canada; China; Denmark; France; Finland; Germany; Italy; Japan; Netherlands; Norway; Poland; Singapore; South Africa; Spain; Sweden; Switzerland; UK and USA. The survey was carried out online between January and February 2016. The figures have been weighted equally in each country and are representative of all fish consumers in the countries surveyed.

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