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26% of seafood products found to be labelled wrongly: Yale-NUS study

SINGAPORE — Close to 26 per cent of seafood products have been mislabelled, researchers from Yale-NUS College found. 

26% of seafood products found to be labelled wrongly: Yale-NUS study

The authors noted that seafood mishandling is garnering more attention due to its potential to negatively impact consumer health.

  • A Yale-NUS study found that 25.8 per cent of seafood samples collected were wrongly labelled
  • The most common items mislabelled were sablefish (sold as black cod), patagonian toothfish (sold as cod or seabass) and iridescent shark (sold as dory or bocourti)
  • Yale-NUS researchers said these substitutions are likely done for financial gain

SINGAPORE — Close to 26 per cent of seafood products have been mislabelled, researchers from Yale-NUS College found. 

Among the samples they collected, the most common items with the wrong labels include sablefish (sold as black cod), patagonian toothfish (sold as cod or seabass) and iridescent shark (sold as dory or bocourti). 

The Yale-NUS researchers said that, overall, these substitutions are likely done for financial gain, although some of the mislabelling might have been accidental.

For instance, a common market name for patagonian toothfish is Chilean seabass, which could have caused confusion during labelling. 

Another example is how halibut has been sold as flounder. The researchers said that both are flat fish and it could be easy for an untrained eye to misidentify these two species.

The research — published in the academic journal Food Control and made available to the public on Jan 10 — was authored by Yale-NUS student Sean Neo, as well as Assistant Professor Wainwright and Dr Caroline Kibat from the college's division of science. 

The researchers had collected 96 samples of pre-packed seafood products from 85 supermarkets and 11 restaurants located around Singapore between January and April last year.

Out of the 96 samples, seven could not be identified. Of the remaining 89 samples, 23 were found to be mislabelled and all of them were from supermarkets.

One possible reason for the higher mislabelling rate among seafood products from supermarkets than those from restaurants is the source of these items, the researchers noted. 

They said that 96 per cent of Singapore's seafood products are imported, and most are sold in supermarkets processed and pre-packed. The rest produced in the country, which tend to be of higher value and are not frozen or processed, are shipped to restaurants here.

However, the researchers also qualified that they collected fewer samples from restaurants than supermarkets.

They also did not find any mislabelling for salmon products; an earlier study by NUS published in October 2019 found that salmon was among some items that were labelled wrongly. 

But the researchers highlighted that they used different DNA sequencing methods and that the samples were collected three years apart. 

"These differences highlight the need for a standardised and repeated sampling strategy to fully understand the incidence of mislabelling and the impact that any policies designed to mitigate this practice have," the study's report stated. 

IMPACT OF MISLABELLING

The authors noted that seafood mishandling is garnering more attention due to its potential to negatively impact consumer health.

It can also hinder the conservation of marine life if fish sold come from unsustainably managed stocks or from species that are endangered. 

The October 2019 study reported that the genetic material of pigs was found in cuttlefish and prawn balls manufactured by a particular seafood brand in Singapore.

In Hong Kong, its consumer council discovered that crustacean DNA was not found in samples of lobster balls.

The overall mislabelling rate of 25.8 per cent in Singapore is relatively high, compared with other developed jurisdictions such as Taiwan (17.4 per cent) and Greece (13.5 per cent), the researchers noted. 

"This mislabelling has the potential to expose consumers to products that could contain toxins detrimental to health." 

For example, patagonian toothfish, which were found to be sold as cod or sea bass, contained levels of mercury that are considered unsafe, the study showed. 

In addition, it can also negatively impact consumer confidence in initiatives that encourage sustainable seafood consumption, and make it difficult to set and enforce sustainable catch quotas, the report added. 

To meet the growing demand for cheaper seafood, the Yale-NUS researchers said that accidental cases of mislabelling are unavoidable and seafood fraud could worsen over time. 

"The sheer scale of the fishing industry and the global supply chain means that international policy at the governmental level needs to be implemented and enforced in efforts to try to curtail the mislabelling and substitution of seafood products." 

Mislabelling can occur at any step in the supply chain, and it becomes harder to correctly identify the species and label them with each step down the chain.

However, the researchers said that it is possible for governments to come up with stringent labelling practices at each step to improve product traceability. 

This includes mandating clear labels that contain the product's country of origin, the type of species, and whether it was caught wild or farmed.

This will allow consumers to make more informed choices on the food they consume, the researchers said. 

"Similarly, the consumer must be prepared to pay a fair price to support these initiatives and encourage the use of more sustainable fishing methods."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misattributed the study to the National University of Singapore. The study was in fact done by researchers from Yale-NUS College. We are sorry for the error.

Related topics

seafood food label NUS research supermarket consumer

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