Fish traceability systems needed to fight fraud

An “effective science-based fish traceability system” is needed in order to combat the “widespread” and “serious” problem of food fraud in the fisheries sector, the United Nations has said.

In a new report, which presents evidence highlighting the scale and “serious consequences” of fraud in the fish sector, the United Nations (UN) Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) notes that while combating fish fraud is a “complex task” there is a need to implement strengthened regulatory and authenticity testing systems that can also identify potential sources of fish fraud in supply chains and introduce measures to minimise the risks.

“Fish traceability is key to combating fish fraud, enforcing food safety regulations and ensuring high standards of sustainable fisheries management,” said Professor Alan Reilly, consultant for the fisheries and aquaculture policy and resources division at the UN FAO, and author of the report. “Traceability is also critical for ensuring the quality of fish products and minimising health risks for consumers,” he added.

The fisheries and aquaculture sectors are recognised as among the most vulnerable sectors to food fraud. In 2015, an Interpol–Europol investigation demonstrated that fish traded internationally was the third highest risk category of foods with the potential for fraud, while in 2013 the European Commission classified fish in the second-highest category for fraud. In 2016, a major report by Oceana that reviewed more than 200 published studies on fish fraud from 55 countries worldwide found that, on average, 20 per cent of all fish in the retail and catering sectors was mislabelled.

According to the FAO report, the most common type of fish fraud involves intentional mislabelling and species substitution. Other types of fraud, to a lesser extent, include overglazed or over breaded fish to deceive the nature of the fish products, and undeclared use of water-binding agents or added water to increase the weight of the products.

The report called for an effective science-based fish traceability system that can identify the fish species and its geographical origin, and be able to distinguish between wild-capture and farmed products, fresh and frozen fish, as well as the many different forms of processed fish currently traded.

“The traceability system must be able to reliably track fish from the point of harvest to the consumer’s plate,” Reilly wrote. “What is required is a traceability system that is science-based and verified by independent scientific analytical methodologies to trace fish and fishery products throughout the marketing chain. Food control authorities require definitive analytical tools for the identification of fish species based on molecular DNA techniques.”

The report also called for the harmonisation and standardisation of analytical techniques and for universal access to a standard database with relevant data on genetic primers based on scientific names.

Besides a traceability system, the report said there was a need to strengthen official national food control programmes by: developing new regulations to combat fish fraud; enhancing enforcement activities prohibiting landings and market access for products from illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing; and introducing monitoring and surveillance programmes for assessing the degree of compliance with fish labelling regulations.

The report also called for greater cooperation between food control authorities and law enforcement agencies, both nationally and internationally, and stated that food regulations needed to be strengthened and penalties made proportionate to criminal infringements.

Meanwhile, there was also an onus on the industry to put systems in place to protect against the risk of fraudulent activities, the report added.

The publication also indicated an important role for the Codex Alimentarius Commission – to work in collaboration with countries in order to develop international principles and guidelines designed to identify, manage and mitigate fraudulent practices in food trade and to develop guidelines to standardise food safety management systems for fish fraud vulnerability assessment.

“Combating fish fraud is a complex task for national authorities as, usually, no single government agency has the regulatory mandate to do so and no single food law or regulation directly addresses all aspects of food fraud. Close collaboration between all of these different agencies of government is essential for an effective response,” the report said.  

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