This week in seafood mislabeling


Science is fun!  UNC students barcoding seafood in my Seafood Forensics class. Photo by Megan May of the UNC Office of Research Communications.












When you teach a class on seafood forensics, your friends and family send you lots of stories about seafood mislabeling in the media. And this week there were some good ones.

First, news that a supplier of Chesapeake blue crab was actually selling imported and “distressed” seafood.

The president of a Virginia seafood company pleaded guilty in federal court Wednesday to netting millions by fraudulently labeling hundreds of thousands of pounds of recalled, old or returned foreign crabmeat as fresh Chesapeake blue crab, according to court records.

“recalled, old or returned” That’s really gross.

Related, is this announcement from grocery store chain Harris Teeter that they will refund customers “who purchased Casey’s Seafood crab meat from its stores from January 1, 2010 through June, 2015.”

That’s pretty cool. It’s the first case Iv’e heard of a vendor effectively apologizing for selling mislabeled seafood. It’s also interesting that the supplier was the mislabeler. It’s often hard to impossible to know where along the seafood supply chain the mislabeling happens.

Second, is this incredible investigative piece by Tampa Bay Times food critic Laura Reiley. The whole story is well-worth reading. In brief, Laura investigated mislabeling (both of species and origin) of area restaurants that specialize in locally-sourced foods.

The food supply chain is so vast and so complicated. It has yielded extra-virgin olive oil that is actually colored sunflower oil, Parmesan cheese bulked up with wood pulp, and a horsemeat scandal that, for a while, rendered Ikea outings Swedish meatball-free.

Everywhere you look, you see the claims: “sustainable,” “naturally raised,” “organic,” “non-GMO,” “fair trade,” “responsibly grown.” Restaurants have reached new levels of hyperbole.

What makes buying food different from other forms of commerce is this: It’s a trust-based system. How do you know the Dover sole on your plate is Dover sole? Only that the restaurateur said so.

Nearly everything served in restaurants is being mislabeled: wine, salt, bread, pork, and of course seafood:

The fish and chips, which the menu says uses wild Alaskan pollock, are made from frozen Chinese pollock treated with sodium tripolyphosphate, a common preservative… In February, I had the grouper sushi roll at Jackson’s Bistro on Harbour Island tested by Ulrich at USF. It was tilapia.

Finally, not a story of mislabeling per se, but a new paper (Wainwright et al 2018) on the use of forensic science to identify shark fins and other products. The authors purchased and barcoded tissue from markets in Singapore. Their results uncovered numerous species listed as endangered or vulnerable.

I don’t really know how to describe how disturbing the reading through Table 1 is: manta rays, blue sharks, tiger and scalloped hammerhead sharks, black tips, big eye thresher and many more. I saw several of these species last summer doing field work in the Galapagos. It’s heartbreaking to hear they’re being sold as food or dietary supplements. Many studies have shown these creatures are far more economically valuable alive, as draws for tourism.

Overall, we positively identified 28 shark and ray species using the COI barcode locus. Of these, two species are listed as Endangered (n?=?7) and ten as Vulnerable (n?=?64) by the IUCN, and eight are listed under Appendix II of CITES (n?=?88) (Table 1).

The most common ray identified (67%) among the commercial products was Mobula japanica, a CITES Appendix II-listed species. Populations of M. japanica are thought to be sparsely distributed, fragmented and highly vulnerable to depletion via unsustainable fishing practices (White et al. 2006). The species has low reproductive output, a long gestation period and slow growth, meaning that once their populations are depleted, even if population recovery is possible, it will be extremely slow. If catastrophic population declines of M. japonica, similar to those seen in sawfish (Moore 2017), are to be avoided, swift and effective conservation measures need to be applied.






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