In the first national study of seafood labeling in Brazil, DNA testing revealed that over 17 percent of the fish that researchers sampled was misidentified as the wrong species. Mislabeling can arise from simple confusion over names, or it can occur when a vendor knowingly swaps one kind of seafood for a cheaper or less desirable version. The study, published this spring in Fisheries Research, contributes to a growing body of evidence showing that seafood fraud is a global problem.
Until recently, Brazil lacked an official list of commercial species names, making it difficult to monitor or control labeling of seafood products. In 2015, the country adopted a list that paired a fish’s common name with a scientific species designation. This list now makes it possible to quantify seafood fraud in Brazil, and to crackdown on companies that are intentionally or unintentionally misleading consumers.
“It is encouraging to hear that the Brazil government has embraced DNA monitoring of its commercial seafood and standardized seafood names, as this study shows,” said Kimberly Warner, a seafood fraud expert and Oceana’s senior scientist.
The DNA testing was completed as part of a forensic program in which government officers confiscated 255 fish products from all 14 Brazilian states as well as imported products from eight countries. Of the 200 samples successfully identified to the species level, 44 of were found to be mislabeled.
Mislabeling was most common in cases where one commercial name was correlated to multiple similar species. “It is interesting to see how allowing multiple species to be sold under one name seems to promote mislabeling,” Warner said. As Warner explained, this is why Oceana has advocated for a “one name, one fish” rule in the United States, which would help eliminate ambiguity in seafood labeling.
The rate of seafood fraud in Brazil reflects the global average. As a 2016 Oceana analysis revealed, around 20 percent of 25,000 seafood samples tested worldwide were incorrectly labeled. The mislabeled species are often expensive fish that are surreptitiously replaced by cheaper, less desirable or less healthy species. This is bad for consumers, and makes it hard for scientists and officials to properly monitor and enforce sustainable fisheries management laws.
But seafood fraud is not an insurmountable problem. In Europe, traceability and transparency initiatives, coupled with increased public attention, knocked mislabeling rates down from 23 to 8 percent in a span of 12 years. The study in Fisheries Research likely represents an effective step to tackling this problem in Brazil.