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Organic Ocean has partnered up with Emily De Sousa (Seaside with Emily), Sea Choice and Dr. Robert Hanner of the University of Guelph to see if DNA testing could help solve an issue facing our seafood supply: mislabelling. 

Seafood is big business in Canada, it was our second largest food export in 2015 and brought in $6 billion to the Canadian economy. Seafood is also arguably our most global food industry; a fish can be pulled out of the water in one country, processed across the globe in another, packaged in a third location and then end up on shelves in countless others.

With our seafood going through so many locations one issue we must contend with is the potential for mislabelling. 

Mislabelling: what is it and why does it happen? 

Seafood is considered mislabelled if it does not accurately state the name of the seafood, incorrectly identifies it as farmed or wild or if it does not accurately portray the geographic origin of the seafood. 

Though often used interchangeably, mislabelling is different from seafood fraud with regards to the underlying mechanisms that create the incorrect information. Seafood fraud is mislabelled deliberately to mislead or deceive the buyer, often so as to increase the value of the seafood. Mislabelling is not deliberate but occurs purely due to the global nature of the seafood market and the number of interactions our seafood goes through before it reaches our shelves. 

Why is mislabelling an issue? 

Mislabelling is a problem for many reasons. At a minimum, when seafood is not labelled correctly, the consumer is not getting what they asked for and this could lead to potential allergies coming into play or influence how much you are paying for a product. At its worst, mislabelled seafood undercuts sustainably sourced products and the hard work of honest seafood harvesters by allowing illegal or unregulated seafood to get to market.  

The Project 

There have been conflicting reports about the prevalence of mislabelling with some studies estimating it as high as 25% of all seafood so we are still not entirely sure exactly how big the impact is on the seafood sector. We do know that it happens and any measures to secure our food system’s integrity can only improve the relationship consumers have with their seafood and secure their trust in the product they are buying. 

With this in mind, Organic Ocean teamed up with Emily De Sousa, Sea Choice and leading eDNA researcher Dr. Robert Hanner to conduct a DNA barcoding study. The study informed Organic Ocean about any potential mislabelling occurring within the products they carry but also served to verify whether DNA barcoding could be a cost-effective solution to scale up in Canada as a check and balance system for the seafood we import. Emily De Sousa has a full run down of the entire study on her blog “Testing DNA, Testing Supply Chains” . 

Samples being taken from Organic Ocean’s seafood products. 

DNA Barcoding 

DNA barcoding allows us to accurately identify what species of seafood we have in front of us. Normally fish can be identified from one another by size, fin presence, colouration etc. but often all you have to work with as a link in the seafood chain is a fillet of a fish.

How do you begin to identify the species of a fish from a fillet? It’s challenging, if not impossible in some cases.

Barcoding takes a genetic sample (small piece of tissue) from the fillet and reads the DNA sequence present, it then compares that DNA sequence to a huge global database of seafood to accurately identify what species the fillet is from. This is the only way to truly verify what seafood is in the packet.

However, there are of course limitations as it cannot tell us where a product came from and whether it was wild caught or farmed. If DNA barcoding was used as a random spot check for seafood entering the country, it could be used to crack down on mislabelling and seafood fraud. 

Samples of seafood are used to retrieve DNA sequences to analyse 

The Future of Seafood Labelling

DNA barcoding every seafood product entering the country is not possible and the case study has shown that scaling up this model to large sample sizes would be time-intensive. New advancements are already making molecular identification more convenient, such as portable mass spectrometry pens that could be used to identify some key seafoods.

The reality is that before we rush into futuristic technology, there are simple things we could do to improve the transparency and traceability of our seafood. In Canada, our labelling laws for seafood could go much further. Currently, you do not need to put the Latin name of the seafood on a packaged product, just the common name; not ideal when over 200 species can have the common name “snapper”, for example. 

Canada also currently misrepresents the geographic origin of your seafood. You would think the country on the packet would be where your seafood was harvested, but in reality it is just the country of the last facility that processed it.  This is one of the reasons Ocean Wise Seafood does such in depth audits with each partner to determine the harvest origin. 

Improving labelling standards and having a clear federal boat-to-plate traceability program would mean accurate information followed our seafood as it moved or was processed and would go a long way toward reducing those gaps where mislabelling could occur. 

Organic Ocean’s Commitment to Sustainability 

As a dedicated Ocean Wise partner committed to the traceability of their seafood products, it is really great to see such leadership in Organic Ocean transparently putting their seafood items forward for the case study. The owners, Steve Johansen and Dave Chauvel, are going above and beyond so their customers can trust exactly what is on their menu/plate.

The results showed that Organic Ocean had labelled their products correctly in terms of common name but interestingly the Latin name provided by their suppliers did differ to the Latin name identified by the barcoding on some occasions, and some more testing is needed to see if this was due lab methodology or a true representation of the seafood. These results will be released soon on the barcoding landing page. This speaks to the complexity of harvesting wild seafood compared to our other food systems like vegetables, beef, and poultry where we are farming/harvesting a singular known species.   

Overall it is exciting to see new technologies being used to secure our food systems and even better that our seafood suppliers like Organic Ocean are invested in using those technologies to ensure their consumers can have a deep trust in their products. If you would like to see the full study and go into a little more depth head to Seaside with Emily to learn more. 

Aquablog written by Nathalie Graham, Senior Accounts Specialist, Ocean Wise Seafood

Photo Credits

  • Header: subinpumsom
  • Photo 1: Kzenon
  • Photo 2 & 3: Emily de Sousa

Posted September 24, 2021 by Ocean Wise

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