Trust is good, checks are better
Many types of fish and seafood are relatively costly foods. This represents a temptation for unscrupulous food fraudsters. They swap expensive species for cheaper ones, manipulate weights or twiddle fillet colouring to simulate freshness. The products offered are not always actually worth their price. In some sushi bars and in restaurants and retail, consumers are deliberately, and sometimes also unknowingly deceived.
Food fraud is a worldwide problem and a lucrative business. Adulterated wine, fake olive oil, oregano bulked out with rock rose leaves, cheap vanillin instead of expensive Bourbon vanilla, conventional products sold as organic goods. There are plenty of opportunities for fraud. Although no consumer wishes to be taken for a ride, far from all of the expensive things they buy is really what ends up on their plate. Fish and fish products are no exception. The potential for fraud is actually particularly great for them, because who among us is reliably familiar with the variety of species on offer, and is able to detect and correctly determine deception? The risk of being caught cheating is correspondingly low, all the more so as fish are one of the most widely traded goods worldwide. Global markets, complex supply chains and opaque trading routes create the ideal conditions for cheating and deception. These extend from lack of information, to communication errors, right up to serious calculated fraud. With almost two thousand fish and seafood species being regularly traded internationally, the range of opportunities for fraud is huge. Particularly because many species look similar and fish are increasingly being sold as fillets rather than whole fish. This creates great opportunities to palm off tilapia as red snapper, pangasius as sole or oilfish as genuine butterfish on unsuspecting consumers. The widespread bad practice of selling thawed frozen goods as “fresh” (at best with the cryptic description “refreshed”) is almost a trifle.
In reality faking and deception occur almost everywhere worldwide, but especially where fish are offered for sale in processed form, such as in preserved products, frozen food or when prepared in restaurants. The chances of falling victim to a product scam are obviously particularly high in sushi restaurants. Investigations using DNA tests in New York showed that a quarter of fish on the menu did not correspond to the species promised. Two out of four restaurants and six out of ten fishmongers sold fish under false names. Seven out of nine maki and nigiri contained significantly cheaper species from the Atlantic instead of red snapper. Apparently this fish species is particularly popular for fake products, as tourists in Asian countries are served the red hybrid form of the two tilapia species Oreochromis niloticus and O. mossambicus as red snapper in every second restaurant. Barramundi (Lates calcarifer) being sold as white snapper on the menu is almost as common.
Disguising the origin of fish products is an even more widespread practice. Disdained farmed species often become sought-after wild fish, which would perhaps still be excusable, although there are certain differences in the nutritional value. Some of these verbal tricks could be quickly identified by consumers if they were better informed. Anyone who, for example, is offered whitefish from Lake Constance in southern Germany should be thoroughly suspicious, because the entire annual catch of this sought-after fish declined to only 20 tonnes in 2022. This would hardly be enough to supply all catering establishments with regional goods. The situation on the Baltic coast of Germany is exactly the same. Anyone ordering a halibut or redfish there should be aware that these species of fish do not live in the Baltic and that they are therefore probably not receiving fresh fish. Incorrect product labels can, however, result from poor translations. The term ‘lobster’ in English is used for two distinct species, lobster and crayfish.
Differing laws can cause confusion
Incorrect information about fish products is not always intentional and driven by the prospect of financial gain, it can also be the consequence of a confusing variety of names or different legal rules in individual countries. What is right and allowed in one country may be attempted fraud in another. A good example of this is the Patagonian toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides), which is marketed in the US as Chilean sea bass. In Argentina and Uruguay it is called merluza negra and in Chile even bacalao. In Japan it is called mero, in France légine australe, in Portugal marlonga-negra, in Sweden tandnoting and in Germany Schwarzer Seehecht (black hake) or Schwarzer Zahnfisch (black toothfish). This confuses not only consumers, but sometimes also importers and retailers, whose ignorance can then lead to incorrect labelling and thereby unintended commercial fraud.
Not every error is therefore a conscious attempt to mislead in order to rip off the consumer and increase profits. However, things are completely different for what is probably the worst form of fish fraud, the “laundering” of illegal catches from IUU fishing. Here fraudsters are particularly inventive and devote significant criminal energy, extending from unloading illegal fish onto licensed fishing vessels or mixing them with regular catches to fraudulent declarations on the product labels. Concealing the origin alone is fraud. But what is tolerable and where does food fraud begin? The EU Commission has formulated several criteria that suggest justified suspicion: “Food criminality is present with intentional or impermissible swaps or additives, falsification or incorrect representation of food, food components or packaging or with deceptive statements about a product with the intention of thereby making a financial gain”. The global food organisation FAO has defined it in an even clearer and more understandable way. According to their definition, fraud can be assumed if:
• fish are replaced with other, cheaper species
• goods are incorrectly labelled to disguise their origin
• fake products are sold
• illegal or undeclared additives are used
• water is used to increase the weight.
Regardless of this, tricks, scamming and faking continue to be practised to gain market advantage and increased profits. A review of the trade names on labels in the USA showed that only 85 percent were correctly labelled. Often, net weights are short-weighted or are incorrect, sometimes due to overglazing, but sometimes also through the addition of phosphate to bind water. Some manufacturers increase the amount of coatings and toppings to use less fish for the same packaging weight. Occasionally the country of origin given is also incorrect, to circumvent regulations, customs and fees or to smuggle illegally caught fish into supply chains. Restaurants are very often hotspots for scamming. Mistrust and questions are always recommended if expensive raw goods such as sole, scallops or snapper are on the menu for unusually low prices. If relatively inexpensive prawns are served instead of the more prized and expensive scampi, this has now become a trivial offence that hardly bothers anybody.
The extent of fraud surprises even experts
A look at China shows the bizarre side-effects that trade in fake seafood products causes. There, Chinese mitten crab (Eriocheir sinensis) is a popular and expensive food, the demand for which far exceeds the supply. Its price depends on the size and origin of the animals. Crabs from Yangcheng Lake (Jiangsu province), some 30 km west of Shanghai, which are particularly prized for their taste, are the most expensive. Although the Yangcheng produces barely more than 1,000 to 1,500 tonnes of Chinese mitten crab per year, at least 100,000 tonnes a year are sold across the country as “genuine Yangcheng”. In order to protect their valuable goods from cheap substitutes, the local fishers and dealers now identify the crabs with a sophisticated marking. They burn an invisible mark into the shells of the living crabs using lasers which can only be detected when they are cooked. Their efforts were in vain, however, as fraudsters managed to imitate the mark within a short time. The method of dumping the Chinese mitten crabs into the Yangcheng for a few days, thus gaining the right to use the brand name in a somewhat “legal” way is also popular.
Even more curious is a case in Cleveland (USA) that shows that attempts at fraud are not just restricted to edible fish. There in October 2022, the apparently wholesome world of competitive angling was shattered, as the jury detected numerous small lead balls in the fish of the supposed winner during weighing. The culprit had intentionally made his catches heavier by doing this, in order to get his hands on the generous 30,000 dollars of prize money. Manufacturers of crab balls in Singapore were just as brazen, as during an official review it emerged that 38.5% of products reviewed contained no crab at all, but pork instead. The extent of such large and small frauds is really alarming. The Guardian evaluated the results of 44 market analyses with 9,000 tests of fish and fish dishes from 30 countries in a metastudy and came to the conclusion that an average of 36 percent of fish and seafood is wrongly declared. Every third fish is therefore not the promised species. There are differences between the countries recorded, but trickery and deception happen everywhere. In Italy, an average of 22.5% of fishing industry products were wrongly identified, in Canada, on the other hand, this was every second product.
In an analysis of 1,000 tests that were carried out on imported fish deliveries at Frankfurt Airport, similar results were shown – over 30% were wrongly declared. And once again, the red snapper was particularly susceptible, which perhaps can be attributed to the fact that at least 38 different species of fish are traded under this name in the tropics. Individual species are simply not distinguished from each other accurately enough. Things that are not working in the countries of origin do not look much better in the target markets. An inspection in 2018 showed that in Great Britain, almost 70% of fish sold as red snapper were completely different fish species. These included many reef species, which, to make matters worse, are also threatened by habitat destruction and overfishing. In the supermarkets and restaurants of the USA, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand, 40% of fish tested were not red snapper. There is method in the madness, since it is not only red snapper, but also other species that are often wrongly labelled. Reviews of fish and seafood ranges in retail and in catering revealed that Canada had the most incorrectly labelled species, at 55%, followed by the USA with 38%. In Finland and Germany the results were hardly any better. However, it was even more surprising that Spain and Iceland came off relatively badly, since one would really expect more product knowledge from these fish-aware, seafood nations.
Enforcement authorities are significantly upgrading their technology
Knowledge of fish is helpful, of course, but what else can be done to make business more difficult for fraudsters and scammers? All the more so as the ongoing trend towards trading in fillets and processed products certainly does not make the unambiguous identification of species any easier. The inspectors and analysing laboratories are upgrading and investing in new analysis techniques. In the last two decades, molecular genetic tools have been developed that make it possible to identify fish species from their DNA. Only tiny samples of tissue are required for this, just as we have come to expect from almost every crime series these days. The methods are reliable, but comprehensive market inspections are nevertheless unlikely, because such inspections are relatively expensive and take up significant time and staff resources. Also, a reference library with DNA sequences for comparison is required for species identification and creating such databases requires sufficient material and takes time. Experts are therefore justified in stating that, given the diversity of fish and seafood species, it would be unrealistic to expect comprehensive monitoring of the relevant market. Which is what would really be needed to protect consumers from product fakery. In fact, currently only two percent of all imported fish deliveries into the USA are checked by the FDA.
So the contradiction remains for the time being – on the one hand, there is a sensitive and selective range of instruments available for uncovering product fraud and deception, but on the other hand, for a variety of reasons, it is still not possible to monitor the entire market comprehensively. Nevertheless, work is being done worldwide to improve the tricky situation step by step. For example, with the help of the international research campaign FISH-BOL, which catalogues the DNA of fish species worldwide and makes the nucleotide sequences publicly available. When the FISH-BOL database is eventually complete, it may make the molecular identification of global ichthyofauna not only significantly simpler and more precise, but also faster and more cost-effective. Together with other future-oriented analytical tools such as NMR spectroscopy (NMR stands for nuclear magnetic resonance) and stable isotope analysis, even the quality, origin and authenticity of food and whether it contains banned substances or substances not typical of the product can be reliably analysed. Because these devices also allow for the type of cultivation to be checked, fraudsters selling conventional products as organic face significantly tougher times ahead.
All market actors are being called on to cooperate
It would, of course, be even better and more effective if the food inspectors had easy-to-use rapid tests in order to check the authenticity of the DNA of grouper, snapper, etc. at the import border or directly at the airport in cases of doubt. A small, handy device, for example, into which the user inserts a small sample of tissue and which then gives the name of the fish and further information on the condition of the product after a short time. Although a lot appears to be technically possible, it will probably still be some time until such aids are actually available. Checks of 14 restaurants in the six German cities of Berlin, Leipzig, Erfurt, Frankfurt am Main, Cologne, and Hamburg showed how well DNA analyses are suited to checking fish species. The undercover inspectors ordered sole dishes everywhere and took small samples of the fish on their plates. Subsequent DNA tests in the lab showed that sole was only actually served in six restaurants. Zander was served twice and the cheaper fish pangasius was served six times. The penalties imposed on the responsible catering establishment were suitably high.
This may have a deterrent effect in the short term, but does little to address the general problem. If the sinister machinations of a criminal minority are to be exposed, we cannot rely solely on patchy state inspections. More engagement is required from the many genuine players in the fish industry. If everyone conscientiously checked their suppliers and customers themselves, we would be a good way further along the road. The guiding principles must be to never accept raw goods from dubious sources, to conscientiously check the species names of the fish and to correctly provide product weight information. In the USA, the National Fisheries Institute even founded a Better Seafood Board in 2007 to combat fraud in fish and seafood. The Board’s self-monitoring mechanism makes it possible for its members – primarily restaurants, retail operations, fish processors and importers – to report persons and operations suspected of fraud. Sysco, a US food supplier, claims that it acts according to the “one strike and you’re out” principle. Contracts with fish suppliers are ended immediately if they sell wrongly declared fish. Those for whom that is a step too far should at least take note of the MSC, Friend of the Sea or ASC certificates when purchasing. These do not provide absolute certainty, but they guarantee a minimum level of checks.