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Shark DNA found in some pet food products sold in Singapore: Yale-NUS study

SINGAPORE — Yale-NUS College researchers have detected traces of shark meat in a third of pet food samples collected in Singapore, including those by notable brands Whiskas and Purina, in what is believed to be the first study of its kind done here.

Shark DNA found in some pet food products sold in Singapore: Yale-NUS study
Canned pet food sold in a shop in Singapore.
  • In a study, Yale-NUS researchers have found traces of shark meat in a third of pet food products
  • They collected the samples in Singapore that included notable brands Whiskas and Purina 
  • The researchers used a technique called "DNA barcoding" to identify the species of sharks in the samples 
  • When contacted, a few pet food companies said that their products do not contain shark meat
  • Two companies suggested that shark DNA was detected because the fish used in pet food had ingested shark carcasses in the ocean 

SINGAPORE — Yale-NUS College researchers have detected traces of shark meat in a third of pet food samples collected in Singapore, including those by notable brands Whiskas and Purina, in what is believed to be the first study of its kind done here.

Researchers Benjamin J Wainwright and Ian French studied 45 different pet food products from 16 brands sold in Singapore. None had listed sharks as an ingredient, with most brands using generic terms such as “fish”, “ocean fish”, “white bait” or “white fish”. 

Mr French, a graduating student majoring in environmental studies at Yale-NUS College, said: “Under current regulations, vague labels such as ‘white fish’, ‘ocean fish’ or ‘white bait’ in pet food are allowed. These labels enable companies to sell mixtures of fish without specifying, or even possibly knowing, their corresponding species identities.”

He added: “The majority of pet owners are likely lovers of nature, and we think most would be alarmed to discover that they could be unknowingly contributing to the overfishing of shark populations.”

He and Assistant Professor Wainwright, who has worked on numerous marine conservation programmes in the tropics, looked at 144 samples.

They used a technique called “DNA barcoding” by matching DNA extracted from the pet food samples against global databases to help identify the animal species contained in them. 

Similar to how barcode labels help to identify different products, “DNA barcoding” uses a short, signature genetic region to identify a species of animal.

The research paper, published in peer-reviewed research journal Frontiers in Marine Science on March 4, stated that the most commonly identified species in the samples were the blue shark, silky shark and whitetip reef shark. 

Both the silky shark and the whitetip reef shark are listed as “vulnerable” in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List and the blue shark is listed as “near threatened”.

The silky shark is also listed in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) Appendix II, meaning that its trade must be controlled to avoid overconsumption because it would threaten survival of the species. 

The paper suggested that after high-value fins from sharks have been removed, the pet food industry may have processed shark carcasses instead of wasting it.

However, the researchers are “sceptical that this is the sole reason sharks end up in pet food”. 

Although Mr French noted that the full scale of seafood mislabelling in Singapore is difficult to estimate, he finds it “striking that nearly one-third of the samples contained shark DNA”. 

“Moreover, this is at least the fourth study in the past four years to expose mislabelling practices locally,” he added.

A study last year by Yale-NUS College found that 26 per cent of all seafood samples taken from supermarkets here are mislabelled and a study in 2018 co-authored by researchers from the National University of Singapore (NUS) identified endangered sharks sold under the overarching label of “fins”.

Although there is no clear scientific evidence for the health impact on pets consuming shark meat, Mr French noted that previous research has shown that there are high levels of mercury in sharks, which may lead to mercury poisoning among cats and dogs.

WHAT PET FOOD COMPANIES SAY 

Pet food companies contacted by TODAY insisted that their products do not contain shark meat.  

They believe that perhaps, the ocean is already contaminated with shark carcasses and the tuna (in canned pet food) had consumed shark's carcasses in the ocean and hence, there is shark DNA in the tuna.
Mr Kenneth Koh, chief executive officer of pet food brand Kit Cat, on what manufacturers said

Mr Kenneth Koh, chief executive officer and brand owner of Kit Cat, said that the detection of shark DNA does not mean that the pet food has shark meat. 

He contacted the factories manufacturing Kit Cat’s products and they declared that there is no shark content or endangered species of fishes in the products.

“They believe that perhaps, the ocean is already contaminated with shark carcasses and the tuna (in canned pet food) had consumed shark's carcasses in the ocean and hence, there is shark DNA in the tuna.

“No one will use shark meat for cat food as everyone is conscious about sharks these days. It is also difficult to fish for sharks and it is much more expensive than tuna,” Mr Koh added.  

“So it does not make much sense to use shark meat inside any cat food products.”

Nestle, the parent company of Purina pet food brand, told TODAY: “There are no Purina products that use shark as an ingredient in its formula and we comply with industry regulations and guidelines to list all ingredients in our pet foods.”

The company also said that it has responsible sourcing guidelines to ensure that all wild-caught and farmed seafood supplied to Purina comes from responsible sources.

“They must not source fish and seafood ingredients that contain IUCN red-listed endangered species and must not acquire or capture any illegal, unregulated and unreported seafood.”

Mars Petcare similarly said that the company does not source any endangered fish species, as defined by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and it does not include sharks in its recipes.

“As a global leader in pet care and nutrition, Mars Petcare is responsible for feeding and care of millions of pets every day. If true, this is a deeply worrying study,” the company, which owns pet food brands Whiskas and Sheba, said.

“We do not use sharks in our supply chain. From this study, it asks us to look for the potential cross-contamination, for example, whether tuna intake may have caused cross-contamination.

“We have reached out to our suppliers of the products indicated in the report to reiterate our clear standards and expectations and understand where control processes need to be strengthened, if needed.”

TODAY has approached the Animal and Veterinary Service for comments. 

List of pet food samples containing shark DNA

BRAND PRODUCT DESCRIPTION SPECIES OF SHARK DNA DETECTED 
Sheba Tuna and White Fish in Gravy Grey Sharpnose Shark, Spottail Shark, Silky Shark, Blue Shark, Shark species could not be identified* 
Sheba  Tuna and Salmon in Gravy Spottail Shark, Caribbean Sharpnose Shark
Sheba Tuna with Prawn in Jelly  Shark species could not be identified* 
Sheba Tuna with Shredded Crab  Shark species could not be identified* 
Purina Fancy Feast Tender Ocean Whitefish Feast: Kitten Spottail Shark, Silky Shark, Sliteye Shark  
Purina Fancy Feast  Ocean Whitefish and Tuna Feast: Classic Pate  Whitetip Reef Shark, Shark species could not be identified* 
Purina Fancy Feast  Seafood Feast: Classic Pate Blue Shark 
Purina Fancy Feast Broth: Classic, with Tuna, Anchovies, and Whitefish in a Decadent Silky Broth Blue Shark, Shark species could not be identified* 
Purina Fancy Feast Broth: Creamy, with Tuna, Chicken, and Whitefish in a Decadent Silky Broth Sicklefin Weasel Shark, Shark species could not be identified* 
Purina Fancy Feast Savory Salmon Feast: Classic Pate Whitetip Reef Shark, Blue Shark 
Purina Fancy Feast Inspirations with Tuna Courgette and Wholegrain Rice Shark species could not be identified* 
Purina Fancy Feast Ocean Whitefish and Tuna Feast in Sauteed Seafood Flavor Gravy  Sand Tiger Shark
Monge Jelly Yellowfin Tuna and Whitebait Shark species could not be identified*
Kit Cat Kitten and Pregnant Cat: Complete Premium Cat Food  Whitetip Reef Shark 
Kit Cat Tuna and Whitebait Shark species could not be identified*
Kit Cat Wild Caught Tuna and Whitebait Blue Shark, Whitetip Reef Shark
Whiskas Ocean Fish Sicklefin Weasel Shark 
Whiskas Seafood Platter Shark species could not be identified*
Whiskas Tuna and Whitefish Flavoured Broth Shark species could not be identified* 
Whiskas Mackerel and Sardines  Silky Shark, Sliteye Shark, Sand Tiger Shark
Snappy Tom  Whitemeat Tuna with Flaked Salmon Blue Shark, Caribbean Sharpnose Shark, Shark species could not be identified*
Aristo-cats Tuna with Smoked Fish  Shark species could not be identified*
NuTripe Ocean Fish and Green Tripe Blue Shark
Aixia Yaizu Tuna and Chicken with Whitebait Shark species could not be identified*

*These samples contained shark DNAs belonging to the Carcharhinus genus or family of sharks, but Yale-NUS College researchers were unable to identify the specific species. 

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pet food Yale-NUS College shark food label endangered species seafood

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