The science of sustainable seafood, explained

Oceana’s response to Seafood Fraud Campaign Criticism

Editor’s note: This post is a response to this post.

SustainableFisheries-UW.org recently posted a critique of Oceana’s work on seafood fraud with a focus on Oceana Canada’s August 2018 Seafood Fraud and Mislabeling across Canada report. Oceana appreciates the opportunity to offer this response and welcomes discussion about its studies and the problem of seafood fraud.

Despite many points of agreement with Oceana’s goals and work, the author’s conclusion that our advocacy is unhelpful for the seafood industry, policy makers and consumers is confusing. Oceana respectfully disagrees with this opinion, and offers the following clarifications and response to the author’s article:  

1. Seafood fraud can occur along any part of the supply chain.

Oceana has always maintained that, due to an increasingly complex and non-transparent supply chain, it is often unknown exactly where seafood fraud occurs. Despite the article’s claim, Oceana believes that just as customers are victims, so too are honest fishers, restaurateurs and retailers. Oceana does not “point fingers.” In fact, Oceana has never named vendors or assigned blame, instead noting that mislabeling can occur anywhere in the supply chain. Oceana collaborates with industry representatives such as chefs, retailers, suppliers, fishers and other stakeholders in the seafood industry with a common goal of increased transparency in seafood supply chains.

2. Oceana’s advocacy helped bring about improvements to seafood traceability, and we continue to fight for common sense policy changes.

Our campaign in the U.S. has helped achieve implementation of the Seafood Import Monitoring Program and continues to work to improve transparency, traceability and consumer labeling requirements. Rather than shy away from the difficulties of working for improvements in murky supply chains, Oceana supports policy changes that can begin to tackle seemingly intractable problems.

Oceana and the author agree that seafood should be labeled by their species-specific names to avoid confusion, as we outlined in our One Name, One Fish report. To clarify, the names of the different vaguely labeled seafood types referenced in Oceana’s studies and mentioned in the article reflect the names under which the tested seafood was sold. Catch documentation, including the species’ scientific name, should follow the fish through the supply chain, allowing everyone to make more informed purchasing decisions. Requiring species-specific names is needed to ensure a safe, legal and transparent seafood supply chain. 

3. Oceana’s sampling methodology is a standard approach used in dozens of others peer-reviewed publications.

We appreciate the author recognizing Oceana’s disclosure of our methods and the types of seafood investigated in our reports, which contradicts his opinion that Oceana publishes misleading information about our testing. While the critique faults Oceana’s methods as “exaggerated,” our approach is far from unique. A comprehensive review of 51 other recent peer-reviewed studies of seafood mislabeling found this methodology to be common (Pardo et al. 2016). As for how the media portrays our work, Oceana continuously strives to correct misleading headlines that attribute the results of our testing to all seafood sold.

To clarify, Oceana defines seafood fraud as “encompass[ing] any illegal activity that misrepresents the fish you purchase, including mislabeling or substituting one species for another” (e.g., Warner et al. 2013). We cannot determine intent with DNA sampling. However, if the fraud definition includes profit and intent, then one would expect to look for it among higher-priced seafood items as opposed to less expensive, widely available products. The majority of seafood mislabeling studies reviewed (>200) include clear evidence of an economic motivation for the seafood mislabeling (Warner et al. 2016), which argues against the author’s claim that most mislabeling is unintentional.

The true irony is that given our many points of agreement, the author could have instead used this platform to contribute to the conversation on how to improve seafood transparency, traceability and consumer labeling so that no stakeholders are harmed by seafood fraud and everyone can enjoy safe, legal and honestly labeled seafood.

Oceana thanks the author for his interest and initiating a discussion surrounding our seafood fraud studies, and for offering Oceana the opportunity to respond.

Picture of Kimberly Warner, Ph.D.

Kimberly Warner, Ph.D.

Dr. Kimberly Warner is a senior scientist at Oceana. Since 2010, she has been responsible for leading the genetic testing of seafood in support of Oceana’s campaign to Stop Seafood Fraud.

Editor’s note part 2: We support having scientific conversations out in the open. Policy makers and the public should have access to as many credible perspectives as possible. If you are an expert and wish to write for us, contact us here.

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