Trust in the food industry is increasingly linked to verifiability, Sandy Neil reports.

It was the biggest food fraud of the 21st century. The horsemeat scandal started to emerge in late 2012, when Ireland’s food safety watchdog bought a box of beef burgers from an Irish branch of Tesco, the UK’s largest supermarket chain.

The pack of Tesco Everyday Value Beef Burgers was just one of 27 beef burger products that the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) had purchased from 10 major retailers for genetic testing.

It was a routine inspection, following earlier checks on the authenticity of chicken fillets and smoked wild and farmed fish. In 2011, the year before the horsemeat scandal, the FSAI had investigated fish labelling, sampling fish and fish products from restaurants, takeaways, and retail premises.

“Most consumers rely on product labels to identify the fish species in food products, particularly where the final product is highly processed or presented as smoked and/or battered,” the FSAI explained.

“Accurate food labelling also facilitates the rapid and efficient traceability of foods from producer to consumer, where risk management measures such as product withdrawal or recall are required.”

The results of this survey were shocking enough. “Almost one fifth of the products tested were mislabelled,” the FSAI concluded: “All but one of the non-compliant samples were sold as cod, but were actually found to contain pollock, smelt or other fish species.”

The FSAI had deployed DNA profiling called “real-time PCR”, most notably used in criminal forensic investigations, to differentiate between animal species present. In 2009 the FSAI had prosecuted an Irish food business operator for misleading consumers by labelling salmon products as being produced from wild salmon, when in fact genetic testing demonstrated the products were farmed salmon. Now the FSAI turned the same successful technique to beef burgers.

The results exploded into the news headlines in January 2013. Out of the 27 beef burger products, 10 bought from Tesco, Dunnes Stores, Lidl, Aldi, and Iceland tested positive for horse DNA. None of the labels listed horsemeat as an ingredient. All but one of the 10 contained equine DNA at low levels – except for the Tesco Everyday Value Beef Burger, which had 29% horsemeat relative to the beef content. The burgers had been on sale in Ireland and the UK.

It would be hard to overestimate the impact this test had, in two populations which mostly viewed horses as pets. Sales of frozen burgers fell by 43%, and frozen ready meals by 13%, in the next month. Not only was trust in retail giants shaken, but also trust in Irish beef.

Tracing back the supply chain, the FSAI found all 10 of the beef burger products with horse DNA were produced by two plants in Ireland, and one plant in the UK, which all denied knowingly supplying horsemeat. Tracing it further back, the FSAI was “sure [the contamination] came from a Polish filler product, which should have been all beef but, in this case, the Polish filler product transpired to be a mixture of beef and horse off-cuts,” said Catherine Brown, Chief Executive of the UK’s food safety watchdog, the Food Standards Agency (FSA).

Ireland’s beef industry was in the clear, said Ireland’s Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.

Meanwhile in the UK, the Food Standards Agency had instructed the industry to carry out its own tests as a matter of urgency, which revealed more horsemeat in products like lasagne and spaghetti Bolognese.

The European Commission also requested a pan-European testing programme, which showed 5% of the beef products tested on sale in EU Member States contained horsemeat at a level above 1%, with some countries finding up to 13%.

Criminals were suspected in the substitution, giving even more cause for concern, said EFRA: “It seems improbable that individuals prepared to pass horsemeat off as beef illegally are applying the high hygiene standards rightly required in the food production industry.”

Horse and cow: easily confused?

Could such a fraud be perpetrated with seafood now? The horsemeat scandal was almost a decade ago, and, since then, supermarkets and big brands in Europe have been raising their game, Professor Alan Reilly of University College Dublin’s Institute of Food and Health told The Guardian in March 2021. “It woke the industry up to the fact that they were being duped. They weren’t checking the authenticity of products, but everybody checks them now, and when you’re purchasing from a trusted supplier, they will have to have a programme in place for vulnerability assessment. That’s all been integrated into contracts.”

Seafood is among the most internationally traded food commodities worldwide, often through complex and opaque supply chains. Much of the global catch is transported from fishing boats to huge transhipment vessels for processing, where mislabelling is relatively easy and profitable to carry out. There is a considerable economic incentive to sell low-value fish in place of more popular and expensive species – and even more money to be made “laundering” illegally caught fish, said Rashid Sumaila, a fisheries economist at the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries at the University of British Columbia. Sumaila calculated in a 2020 study that between 8m and 14m tonnes of fish are caught illegally every year. “That’s like 15 to 20 million cows being stolen every year,” in terms of weight, he said.

The risk of getting caught is low because monitoring and transparency is weak along the seafood supply chain. “People can make a lot of money doing this,” said Sumaila. Others lose out. Fish laundering results in an economic loss of $26bn–$50bn (£19bn–£36bn) a year, Sumaila’s study concluded, as illegal or fraudulently labelled fish undercuts the legal industry, making it difficult for honest players to compete.

How can seafood consumers know that what they’re eating is what they’ve paid for, and how can seafood producers assure that their product is authentic?

There is no universally acceptable definition for “traceability”. Although legal requirements, international standards and private voluntary standards require traceability in one form or another, none is prescriptive in the way it is to be achieved.

The blue MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) label for wild-caught fish and seafood, and the green ASC (Aquaculture Stewardship Council) label for farmed products, provide assurances of authenticity and provenance, said Seth McCurry, the UK & Ireland commercial manager for the MSC. These products will have followed the MSC chain of custody standard, he says, “which ensures that the product can be traced back to a certified fishery or farm”.

About 38,000 sites around the world carry MSC certification, from supermarkets, fishmongers, hotels and restaurants to processors, distributors and warehouses.

The MSC carries out DNA testing of its affiliated products. “Mislabelling rates are less than 1%, which is pretty encouraging,” says McCurry. The MSC’s most recent study, published in the journal Current Biology in 2019, sampled 1,402 products and 27 species of fish, sourced from retailers across 18 countries. Of the 360 UK products tested, 354 were correctly labelled.

Currently the ASC is proposing changes to its Chain of Custody module – the standards that ensure that the origin of seafood products is recorded and certified. “ASC is expanding its Chain of Custody requirements to strengthen its supply chain assurances to buyers and consumers, and to better address the unique nature of farmed seafood,” the council explained. It launched a consultation in March on the proposals.

Many new technologies are being deployed in the fight against fish fraud. In 2018 Loch Duart, a salmon farming company based in the Hebrides and Sutherland, teamed up with Oritain, experts in scientifically proving the origin of food products, to prevent food fraudsters from passing off other salmon as Loch Duart’s. Oritain’s testing measures trace elements that occur naturally at each farm and are absorbed by the salmon raised there. Further analysis creates a unique fingerprint that is then used to verify the origin of the fish. The process allows Loch Duart to audit at any stage in the supply chain and determine exactly where the salmon being tested originates from.

Alban Denton, Managing Director of Loch Duart, said: “If another salmon is ‘passed off’ as ours, consumers are being both exploited and misled. Our distributors have told us that it happens. We’re partnering with Oritain to ‘police’ the supply chain. We’re determined to do everything we can to protect our world-renowned brand, and ensure that when people ask for Loch Duart salmon they can be completely certain this is what they are getting.

In Canada, Dane Chauvel, co-founder of Organic Ocean Seafood in Vancouver, is pioneering DNA barcoding to show the origins of the company’s wild-caught salmon. The DNA barcoding, developed at Ontario’s University of Guelph, involves sequencing a short, specific section of a particular gene from a sample, and comparing that with a library of barcodes from known species. The fish were identified when caught and tagged with a unique ID, including their species name, to track them during processing.

Chauvel can prove the salmon in his hands is a wild salmon, because the fish has been included in a random DNA testing programme.

“Without telling us, someone from Guelph shows up and takes random samples from here,” Chauvel explains. The samples are sent to a lab at Guelph, and the results posted on Organic Ocean’s public website. Letting a third party publish its findings online enhances transparency.

Chauvel comments: “I hope using DNA becomes more commonplace in the industry. It’s been a great business advantage for us.”

In Norway blockchain, a digital record of transactions, is also being deployed. The name comes from its structure, in which individual records, called blocks, are linked together in single list, called a chain. Each transaction added to a blockchain is validated by multiple computers on the Internet.

Last year in June, the Norwegian Seafood Association (NSA) announced a partnership with IBM and technology provider Atea ASA using blockchain – the technology that underpins bitcoin – to create a transparent, accountable record of farmed salmon from sea to dinner plate. Information is gathered on how salmon are bred, stored and shipped, which customers can then access by scanning a QR (“quick response”) code: a “two–dimensional barcode” capable of storing much more data than standard barcodes, that can be accessed instantly.

Using blockchain will help Norway’s producers safeguard their reputation and stop inferior products being faked as Norwegian, according to Espen Braathe, an executive at IBM Food Trust Europe. “When you sell a fresh, clean product, it’s really important you produce as much evidence as possible,” Braathe said.

The initiative should allow Norwegian farmers to obtain higher prices for their fish, said the NSA’s CEO Robert Eriksson. The target is for each member to trace as much as 40% of their fish population by 2025, according to IBM.

“It really exemplifies very well how a solution like this could work to introduce trust into the value chain and the industry,” Atea CEO Steinar Sonsteby said. For retailers, “they want to be 100% sure that what they are buying and selling on is something that they can be 100% behind.”

So has fish fraud diminished in the decade since the horsemeat scandal? No – if anything, it’s got worse, claimed a report in March this year.

According to a Guardian analysis of 44 recent studies of more than 9,000 seafood samples from restaurants, fishmongers and supermarkets in more than 30 countries, 36% were found to be mislabelled, “exposing seafood fraud on a vast global scale”.

In one study using DNA analysis, which compared sales of fish labelled “snapper” by fishmongers, supermarkets and restaurants in the UK, US, Canada, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand, researchers found mislabelling in about 40% of fish tested. The UK and Canada had the highest rates, at 55%, followed by the US at 38%.

Oceana, an ocean conservation NGO which carried out nearly 20 investigations of its own into mislabelling, also did a global review in 2016 of 200 studies from 55 countries. This found on average that one in five fish sampled from fishmongers, supermarkets and restaurants was wrongly identified. The situation does not appear to be improving. In 2019, Oceana found 47% of the samples it tested from food retailers and restaurants in six Canadian cities were mislabelled.

“The global seafood industry is dysfunctional,” said Donna-Mareè Cawthorn, a researcher at the University of Mpumalanga in South Africa, whose 2018 study found that more than 80% of samples sold as snapper in markets and restaurants in various cities in the UK were improperly labelled. “People know more about the provenance of the wine they drink than the seafood they eat.”

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