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Mislabeling Of Seafood Happens Everywhere South Africa, March 8, 13

There is much talk about mislabeling these days; mislabeled seafood in USA, horse meat served as beef in Europe; now a research institution published a 2012 study on mislabeling in the seafood industry, which revealed that the practice is widespread in South Africa.

The mislabeling of fish species may occur at various points along the supply chain, either through unintentionally mistaking one species for another or, more frequently, for unscrupulous ends. Those ends could be to launder illegally caught fish, market a lesser known fish species under a name more familiar to consumers, or increase profits by substituting low value fish for similar high-value alternatives.

Mislabeling of seafood products defrauds the consumer. One of the most serious consequences of seafood mislabeling, however, is that it undermines conservation efforts aimed at protecting endangered fish stocks. In South Africa the most widely recognized project is the Southern African Sustainable Seafood Initiative, which categorizes seafood according to a simple green (sustainable), orange (reason for concern), and red (unsustainable and/or illegal to sell) classification system.
The study of mislabeling practices in the seafood industry used DNA sequencing to identify 248 fish samples collected from fish wholesalers and supermarkets in the Eastern Cape, Western Cape, Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal. The results showed that about a fifth (21%) of seafood products were mislabeled, with such misrepresentation found to be more common among retailers than wholesalers. Mislabeling was most common in KwaZulu-Natal (56% of samples were mislabeled), but was also prevalent in Gauteng (31%) and the Western Cape (25%).

In certain cases it is clear that economic incentives lay behind food mislabeling. For example, the study found cases where relatively inexpensive skipjack tuna was substituted for more expensive yellowfin tuna. The study also found cases, however, where endangered fish species were being sold under the name of imported or more sustainable stocks.

Despite the fact that regulations exist in South Africa governing food labeling, including seafood, these regulations are inadequate and often poorly enforced. In order to address mislabeling in the seafood industry countries such as Canada and the United States have published seafood lists defining acceptable market names for seafood products. South Africa, however, has no such regulations.

Addressing mislabeling of seafood products in South Africa requires action from government, the private sector and consumers. Despite the common occurrence of mislabeling, consumers should continue to use guidelines such as the Southern African Sustainable Seafood Initiative. This will inform their choice of seafood and send a clear signal to wholesalers and retailers that seafood sustainability should be prioritized. Moreover, consumers are able to apply pressure on retailers to improve traceability in supply chains and address vague or misleading labeling of seafood products.