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Industry questions study into fish mislabelling

A study which claims chip shops without an MSC certificate are five times more likely to serve the wrong species of fish to their customers than those outlets that do has been criticised for being misleading.

The response follows DNA tests conducted on behalf of the MSC on samples of battered fish from 122 shops in the UK and Ireland, half of which are certified. 

The results released today reveal that five out of the 61 non-MSC shops (8.2%) sampled served fish that differed from the species advertised. In four of the five incidents cod was mislabelled as haddock, or vice versa, with once case where cheaper whiting was sold as cod. In contrast, only one sample from the 61 MSC certified shops (1.64%) was found to be mislabelled as haddock instead of cod. 

The MSC issued the findings along with a statement which said: “The DNA results are clear, your Friday night takeaway is far more likely to be the fish you think you’ve bought if it’s MSC labelled.”

However, this is a view that has been challenged by many in the industry who are concerned about the implication it could have on those shops that do not hold MSC certification, but which go to great lengths to ensure fish is labelled correctly.

Fred Capel, owner of Chez Fred in Bournemouth, comments: “To state that if you are not MSC certified, your customers are five times more likely to be served the wrong species is misleading in my view.”

Despite buying MSC certified cod, haddock and hake, Fred has taken the decision not to go for MSC chain of custody, a move that would cost his business over £1,800 a year in audits and license fees to use the ecolabel on his menus.

He adds: “I’m not against MSC fish, the cod and haddock I’m using at the moment, as well as the fresh hake, is fantastic, it’s some of the finest fish available. However, I certainly do not feel that my business needs to be MSC certified in order to know what we are serving our customers.

“We have excellent relationships with our suppliers who themselves have great responsible ethics. I know what I’m buying and our highly trained staff know what they are cooking and serving. To imply that shops are not doing a great job just because they choose not to spend a lot of money gaining certification is unreasonable."

Fred also questioned the way in which the study was conducted adding: "I am not sure that this survey has been carried out in the true spirit of fairness. They have visited 61 MSC certified shops, which by their very nature will be some of the industry’s top shops. They’ve then just picked 61 shops that happen to be nearby, in my view it’s not a like-for-like comparison.”

Simon Walsh, owner of Longsands Fish Kitchen in Tynemouth, North Shields, is of a similar opinion. Like Fred, Simon buys MSC certified cod and haddock, along with locally sourced, seasonal fresh species, but has not opted for MSC chain of custody either. With strict sourcing policies and staff training procedures in place, he remains absolutely confident that what is on the menu is what is served up to customers.

Simon comments: “It’s an insult to a lot of intelligent people that work tirelessly to serve a good product. It’s very shortsighted of the MSC to say that because I don’t have the little blue tick, I am at more risk of selling my customers something that it isn’t.

“My product is top quality, my staff knowledge of what we are selling and where it comes from is unbelievable. I have my own chain of custody, we do our own supplier audits, so we know exactly where our fish is from and the boat that caught it. Even down to our lobsters, I can give the grid reference as to where the lobster pot was dropped and I can put that on our menu.

“In the last two years I’ve had Environmental Health in a number of times and they’ve taken four different samples of fish we sell. I know I can say there won’t be a problem with anything I sell. They could take the whole lot and test it if they like.”

By sourcing seasonal varieties of fish, Simon also believes he's ahead of most shops when it comes to sustainability, adding: “I would say I’m more sustainable than 80% of the MSC certified shops out there. I buy all my fish in season, when it’s available and when it’s at its best. That’s more sustainable than a shop that is MSC certified and which has a freezer full of 20 or 30 different species of fish.”

John Molnar, owner of the Cods Scallops, has MSC chain of custody at his shop in Nottingham and believes it helps ensure customers get what they pay for. He explains: “Traceability is really important to us at The Cod’s Scallops. If you have a look at other foods, you’ll see that traceability and provenance are so important and these all tell a story about where that food has come from. We think this should be the same for fish too! The MSC’s chain of custody allows you to provide this information as fish is traceable through the supply chain to the source."

Despite differences of opinion, the results do show British chippies to be ahead of the global seafood mislabelling rate of 30%, and indicate a marked improvement in mislabelling in the industry. In 2014, the consumer organisation Which? conducted a study of fish and chip shops in conjunction with the Institute of Global Food Security (IGFS), Queen’s University Belfast, which, found one in six (16%) fish were mislabelled.

James Simpson, senior communications and marketing manager, MSC North East Atlantic, said: "The research is good news for the whole industry with fish swaps and mislabelling around half the level of a few years ago. It's better news, however, for those MSC certified chippies. With a fully traceable supply chain, they can be certain that the fish they're cooking is exactly what they're expecting.

"Most of the mislabelling we found was cod swapped with haddock - an easy mistake for anyone to make. MSC certified chippies have an advantage there as the processes for MSC certification help keep them separate, reducing the risk of mix-ups. MSC is open to any chippy, and the benefits to owners are clear: better information about your fish, a traceable supply, and the knowledge for you and your customers that you're helping to protect fish supplies - and our national dish - for the future.”


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