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Seafood and the science of DNA

3 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice

As if it’s not tough enough to determine which fish dishes are sustainable and which are made with seafood on the endangered list, a report last week warns about trusting labels. Apparently, seafood fraud is rampant and labels might be misleading, according to a report from nonprofit Oceana. Researchers found that between 20% and 25% of all seafood is mislabeled and, for some species, the rate might be as high as 70%, although no governmental agency has released statistics on fish fraud.

Not all fish look alike, but many do, and that’s enough for producers and processors to get away with mislabeling in an astoundingly high number of cases, according to the report. Add to that the processing that turns raw fish into crab cakes, calamari rings and frozen filets, and the origins grow even murkier, because processors often throw different species into the mix. From a financial perspective, widespread fraud leads to consumers and restaurants being overcharged when they order red snapper and receive one of nine cheaper substitutes.

The global nature of the seafood trade makes it even tougher to track the origin of fish and can contribute to health concerns. Demand for seafood is on the rise, and the U.S. imports more than 80% of the supply that is served each year. Fraud can happen in any link of the supply chain, according to Oceana’s report, which gives a brief overview of the source of the U.S. seafood supply and steps involved in getting it to the table.

Only a few hundred fish samples are rigorously tested each year, according to a New York Times story about the report, but DNA “bar-code” testing makes it feasible and relatively affordable to test hundreds of thousands of samples, provided agencies are given resources to do so. Researchers who put together the fish-fraud report are joining a growing number of food-safety advocates and environmentalists who are pushing for better policing using DNA testing and more spot checks by the Food and Drug Administration. Science makes it possible to replace laborious legwork with a simple lab test.

The push comes at a time when transparency and sustainability are becoming watchwords at a growing number of restaurants anxious to serve guests authentic food. DNA testing isn’t only for seafood, as indicated in The Globe and Mail. There’s an Angus beef producer who uses DNA to trace his cattle from birth to the table at 11,000 restaurants, and testing has proven potential when it comes to tracking down the source of food-supply contamination.

Would your customers pay a little bit more for seafood, beef or another dish if its origin were guaranteed?