Red Fish, Blue Fish, Which Fish?: What we can learn from the FAO’s report on food fraud in the fisheries sector

Created on Friday, 17 August 2018


The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) released a report this year analyzing food fraud in the fisheries sector. While not a new point of concern, the issue has gained attention as consumers have become increasingly attuned to their food systems. The FAO defines food fraud as “the act of defrauding food buyers for economic gain” which can include:

  • Mislabeling
  • Substitution
  • Counterfeiting
  • Misbranding
  • Dilution
  • Adulteration

Aside from the fact that food fraud is illegal, when examining a sector such as fisheries, the FAO adds that fraud can affect public health, undermine confidence in the market place, and negatively impact fishery management.

According to a 2015 report by Europol, the risk of seafood fraud was the third highest within the international food market and occurred by means of substitution and mislabeling. To put that statistic into perspective, Oceana found that in the U.S. alone, nearly 33% of seafood samples were mislabeled. Similarly, a study conducted by Oceana in 2016 examined 200 reports of seafood fraud from 55 countries and found that on average 20% of the fish in the retail and catering sectors were mislabeled. Authorities recognize the severity of the issue, but preventing seafood fraud has been challenging. With the absence of the tail, head, or skin, identifying a fish to species level is incredibly difficult. However, as methods for molecular identification have become increasingly available, transparency within seafood supply chains has improved. An emerging tool is DNA barcoding, where DNA is processed to identify the species, independent of their form. The FAO emphasizes the importance of DNA barcoding and encourages the process to become internationally recognized as a necessary means for combatting seafood fraud.

When thinking about seafood fraud, it is important to also address illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, which contributes to deceitful practices. IUU product can be caught and marketed alongside legally harvested product and sometimes mislabeled and substituted, further contributing to the impacts of seafood fraud. Globally, the value of IUU fisheries range between 10 to 23 billion USD which equates to 11 to 26 million tons of fish product. Unfortunately, IUU fishing occurs around the world but developing countries are far more vulnerable as a result of weak or underdeveloped regulations and enforcement policies. Although there has been effective implementation of international agreements and initiatives to combat IUU product from entering the market, the report highlights that one challenge of addressing seafood fraud and IUU fishing is that there is no one government agency or single law responsible for regulating seafood markets and supply chains.

Acknowledging these challenges, the FAO has made suggestions to streamline the processes for combatting seafood fraud which require collaboration between different government agencies:

  • Establishing an agreed list of fish names
  • Developing mandatory labelling requirements
  • Strengthening official food controls
  • Strengthening industry food safety management systems

The FAO states that improvements within these processes alongside traceability advancements throughout the seafood industry will be key to combatting seafood fraud. With shared concerns, FishWise continues to emphasize the importance of using traceability as a tool to tackle fraud within seafood supply chains. As active participants in many NGO alliances, industry groups, and government initiatives, we strive to provide guidance and resources to navigate traceability and combat IUU fishing.

To learn more about seafood traceability, please visit our Traceability and Counter-IUU Fishing Resources page.