New Report Hopes to Inspire Confidence in Fish Sales

31 March 2016, at 1:00am

US - The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) has released details about its most recent DNA test results that show 99.6 per cent of MSC labeled products are correctly labeled. At a time when consumer concerns over seafood fraud and traceability have reached an all-time high, MSC hopes the report will inspire confidence at the point of sale.

“MSC’s DNA testing results prove you can trust that seafood sold with the blue MSC ecolabel really is what the package says it is and can be traced from ocean to plate,” says MSC Regional Director for the Americas Brian Perkins.

In addition to consumer confidence, MSC hopes the test results will also help allay the concerns of US businesses faced with proposed regulations that require greater traceability. Last month, the US government announced proposed rules that would require tracking to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing and seafood fraud.

“Many businesses are left wondering whether they’re selling seafood that was produced legally and sustainably,” says Perkins. MSC certification means, according to Perkins, that businesses can be confident that MSC ecolabeled seafood has been legally sourced and can be traced back to a sustainable fishery.

Responding to Consumer Demand

While the debate over the effectiveness of seafood certification schemes insofar as improving the sustainability of fish stocks is concerned is far from resolved, MSC says consumers both trust and seek out ecolabels at the point of sale.

Preliminary findings from an MSC survey show that 65 percent of those purchasing seafood say they want to know their seafood can be traced back to “a known and trusted source,” and 63 percent say they look to ecolabels as a trusted source of information. Fifty-five percent of the respondents said they did not trust the seafood they consume is what it says it is on the label. The survey included 16,876 seafood consumers across 21 countries who said they, or someone in their household, had purchased seafood in the last two months. GlobeScan was contracted to perform the survey.

Other studies have suggested that, in a broader context, many consumers still don't necessarily recognize or understand broad sustainability ecolabels like MSC’s. The larger issue, especially in the US, is that most people don't eat enough seafood, and in turn, they don’t have exposure to—or care about—MSC and other certification schemes that deal with a multitude of sustainability issues across multiple fisheries (unlike a specific issue-oriented ecolabel like Dolphin Safe). Of those who say they care, there are limited data on how many are willing to pay the price premium that often accompanies an ecolabeled product.

A larger push to eat seafood, combined with a greater awareness of the environmental risks posed by the seafood industry, will likely cause a greater percentage of the general public to both care about and utilize MSC’s and other certification schemes’ ecolabels. Good market saturation in major retailers like Whole Foods, combined with the confidence inspired by the DNA test results released today, positions MSC to play an increasingly larger role in the environmental sustainability of global fisheries.

One Mislabeled Product in MSC DNA Test

The DNA results released by MSC today are based on a random sample of 257 MSC ecolabeled seafood products collected from 16 countries in 2015. There were a total of 13 species sampled.

Samples were compared against a reference library containing the genetic codes of most edible marine species. The results show only one product was mislabeled and that product was from the MSC certified Alaska Flatfish – Gulf of Alaska fishery. Specifically, MSC certified northern rock sole (Lepidopsetta polyxystra) was mislabeled as southern rock sole (L. bilineata), and MSC says the mislabeling was investigated and the issue has been resolved at the supplier level.

MSC commissioned the Wildlife DNA Forensics unit at Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture (SASA) to conduct DNA testing. The Laboratory used Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms that identify single nucleotide differences within sequences. The specific sections of DNA, commonly referred to as genetic barcodes, were validated against the Barcode of Life Data Systems (BOLD), a sequence database dedicated to DNA barcoding, and FishTrace, a genetic catalogue and online database of European marine fishes.

This is the fifth round of DNA testing by an independent lab commissioned by the MSC. Since 2009, MSC’s DNA testing has found a mislabelling rate of less than one percent. It should be noted that, in most cases, the DNA testing cannot distinguish between an MSC certified and a non-certified sample of the same species, nor can it distinguish between two fish of the same species originated from two different MSC certified fisheries. In addition to DNA testing, MSC undertakes a suite of monitoring activates to insure traceability.

Seafood fraud and mislabeling is undoubtedly an issue, but there is some debate about how significant the issue is. A study that will publish next month in the journal Food Control looked at 51 peer-reviewed papers including 4,500 samples and found that the average percentage of reported mislabeling in the seafood industry is 30 percent. A 2015 Oceana report found that of 82 salmon samples from restaurants and grocery stores, 43 percent were mislabeled. A 2013 Food and Drug Administration report found that 85 percent of samples in a study focused primarily on products from the US wholesale distribution chain prior to the point of retail sale were labeled correctly.

Should MSC Do More?

MSC ecolabeled seafood is sold and processed by certified organizations operating in more than 38,000 sites in over 100 countries. As of October 2015, nearly 10 percent of total global wild-caught seafood was MSC certified. Some critics of MSC contend the cost of certification is too high and many smaller fisheries that are in fact sustainable can’t afford to achieve and maintain the certification.

This fact, critics argue, unfairly marginalizes these smaller fisheries by restricting market access to companies that commit to only sourcing MSC certified seafood products.

In addition, some argue MSC certification is not “holistic” enough. For example, they argue MSC should include a requirement for the assessment of social and employment conditions of fisheries and their supply chains. In 2014 MSC added a new requirement for no forced labor violations to their standards, and a spokesperson says MSC will continue to engage with other standard setters wishing to develop social standards for fisheries and seafood supply chains.

Despite its critics, MSC remains one of the most recognized ecolabels in the seafood sector and is frequently referred to as “the gold standard” insofar as certification schemes are concerned. Even those who would like to see true boat to plate traceability in seafood supply chains—a system where a consumer can know the vessel on which a fish was landed—generally agree that the environmental sustainability of global fisheries is better off because of MSC’s engagement over the past two decades.