Illustration: Daniel Mitchell
To the inexpert eye, one piece of fish can often look much like any other. And the color, shape and texture of fish and other marine species can also be changed beyond recognition by modern processing techniques. So can we be sure that the fish on our plate is really what we think it is? Not too long ago, the answer would probably have been no. But thanks to tighter EU regulations, improvements in scientific testing and increased vigilance by major supermarket chains and manufacturers, the chances of our cod being cod and our hake being hake are these days considerably higher.
Yet the fact remains that as the most commonly traded foodstuff in the world, worth more than $130bn a year, seafood is big business, and policing the whole market is a huge task.
As one recent survey showed, even at the heart of the European Union, in the very canteens where its legislators eat, not every fish is what it’s meant to be. And as we discovered, the consequences of this so-called “seafood substitution” can sometimes be serious…
Why fish isn’t always good for you
According to Professor Chris Elliott, an expert in food safety at Queen’s University, Belfast, Northern Ireland, a growing number of people have allergies to fish. “But it tends to be very species-specific,” he says. “So if you know that you’re allergic to a particular species, then you avoid it in your diet. But if it’s coming into your diet by other means, then you are susceptible.”
In other words, if the fish you’re eating turns out not to be the fish described on the menu or the label, there could be a serious health issue.
And the fish you’re eating can be harmful to you even if you’re allergy-free. In Italy, pufferfish, which contain potentially fatal toxins, have been found to be substituted for squid. And escolar, a common substitute for tuna, can cause severe gastrointestinal problems for some.
“It looks like tuna and tastes like tuna,” says Professor Elliott. “The only difference is that escolar contains a kind of waxy substance that is poisonous to quite a large number of people. We believe there’s a lot of escolar poisoning going on around the world.”
Unusually, the poisoning has a delayed onset, so it takes about 48 hours between consuming the fish and becoming ill. “That is very atypical for food poisoning,” says Professor Elliott. “If you feel ill in the morning, you associate it with what you ate last night, but with escolar poisoning, because it’s delayed for two days, you tend to blame it on something else.”
Meet the Pangasius, a fish of many guises
If there were awards for fish impersonation, the Vietnamese catfish, proper name Pangasius, would sweep the board.
A survey conducted by ocean conservation pressure group Oceana found this shovel-shaped bottom dweller had stood in for a staggering 18 different species of fish worldwide, including sole, plaice and halibut.
And with its mild-tasting white flesh and ability to thrive in aquaculture conditions that would kill other species, the Pangasius has also become a cheap and popular fish choice in its own right in the last decade.
Around the world—and onto your plate
If you’re about to tuck into a ready meal or other frozen food product containing processed fish, then it’s likely you’re eating something that’s traveled around the world before it reached your plate.
The vast majority of fish used for processing is caught by Norwegian and Russian factory ships in the Atlantic. On board the ships, the fish have their heads and guts removed before being frozen.
Then they’re taken to China, where they’re thawed at giant processing plants and teams of thousands of women fillet them by hand—because they do it better than machines and it’s cheaper. The filleted fish are then refrozen in 7.5kg blocks and despatched to huge cold stores in South Korea. From there, the blocks are bought and sold on, until they reach the company that’s making your fish fingers or fish pie.
“It’s all about economy of scale,” says Professor Elliott, who believes
the length of the processing route means it offers the potential for fish substitution along the way.
Are you getting what you paid for?
In the great majority of cases, a fish that’s substituted for another is likely to be a cheaper variety. For example, a study in Germany in 2015 found that about half of the samples sold as “sole” were in fact lower value fish. In Spain in 2014, lower-value South African hake was found to have been sold as higher-value European hake.
In the UK, consumer watchdog Which? investigated the nation’s fish and chip shops and discovered cases in which haddock was being sold as more expensive cod, and whiting was being sold as more expensive haddock. For the fraudsters, it’s a lucrative and relatively low-risk game.
But not always. In 2015 in the UK, businessman and company director Michael Redhead was sentenced to six months in prison and his company was fined £50,000 after he fraudulently passed off one type of sea bass as another, hoodwinking frozen food retailer Iceland and a food processing company that was one of its suppliers.
What’s in a name? More than you think
As we travel around Europe, we get used to the different names that different countries have for the fish we know and love.
But problems arise when the local name for a fish can cover several different varieties, especially as the EU allows member states to use their own commercial market names for seafood.
So if you buy “colin” in France, you could be getting any of six different species: hake, saithe, European pollock, marbled rockcod, Alaska pollock and even Patagonian toothfish.
This can lead to more than just confusion. A study in Greece found that hake, cod, haddock and whiting were all labeled as “bakaliaros”, despite some species posing higher allergy risks than others.
Can you trust what it says on the label?
In 2012 the EU set up the Labelfish project to improve the traceability and labeling of marine products. At the time, research showed that almost 40 per cent of fish consumed within the bloc was not the species advertised.
But the scheme has had a rapid and significant impact. In 2015 scientists conducted DNA tests on fresh, frozen and tinned seafood. The results showed a significant decrease: Spain had the highest rate of incorrect labeling, at 9 per cent, followed by Portugal with 6.7 per cent and Germany with 6.2 per cent.
But what’s on the menu? You might be surprised
While the EU has undoubtedly been successful in reducing the level of mislabeling in supermarkets and fishmongers, we should remember that restaurants, canteens, hospitals and schools are all excluded from the Labelfish scheme.
In 2015 the ocean conservation group Oceana carried out DNA testing on 280 fish samples collected in Brussels both from restaurants and also from the canteens of the EU Commission and European Parliament.
Overall, almost a third of the fish sampled had been misrepresented either on the menu or by restaurant staff. More pertinently, in EU institution canteens a level of fraud of 38 per cent was discovered, primarily related to cod, saithe, pollock and hake.
Fish fraud is harmful to sustainability…
In its study of worldwide fish substitution, Oceana cites a report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature which states that 16 per cent of the species that are being misrepresented have some level of elevated conservation risk. And the problem, according to Oceana, is that fish substitution gives consumers the perception that stocks are healthier than they actually are.
Overfishing and ‘bycatch’ (when non-target fish are caught in nets and killed) are depleting fish stocks, and many species are facing extinction, including some we regularly see on our plates.
“In Brussels, bluefin tuna, a strictly managed fishery with a quota capped under a 20-year recovery plan, nevertheless appears on menus year-round,” says Oceana. “Of the 69 bluefin tuna dishes we tested in Brussels restaurants, 98 per cent were actually another species. The appearance of these struggling species on menus could make it harder to argue for increased protection for bluefin tuna when consumers think that the population is healthy and abundant.”
Bycatch? There’s no such thing…
NorthSeaChefs is an initiative in Belgium aimed at promoting the consumption of lesser known fish species and bycatch.
With funding from the EU and Belgium’s Flemish government, it’s trying to convince chefs, amateur cooks and indeed the whole food industry that there’s a world of fish out there that’s being wrongly overlooked. Their argument is simple: “We have to learn to eat what the fisherman catches, not just fish for what we eat and throw away the rest.”
Their website contains recipes from noted Belgian chefs for cooking all manner of lesser known fish from the North Sea. So if you think you’re ready, say hello to the small-spotted catshark, the tub gurnard, the greater weever and the pouting. Why not give it a go?