The United Nations (UN) Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) has released a report indicating that the fishing industry is the most vulnerable industry for food fraud such as species substitution and mislabelling.

UN advisor and Food Safety Authority Ireland former CEO Alan Reilly wrote the report, highlighting the damage food fraud does to consumer confidence.

“Public health is endangered when fish species that are toxic are substituted for non-toxic varieties,”​ he said. “Public health is also put at risk when farmed or freshwater species from polluted watercourses are substituted for marine fish.”​

According to the report, this issue is becoming increasingly prevalent. The difficulty of detecting the origins of fish when processed into fillets, breaded products and ready meals containing fish, has added to the problem. Reliance on written documents that hold data on geographical origin, species and registration of vessels also facilitates food fraud as documents can be falsified.

“While DNA barcoding…has been established as a reliable method to identify fish to species level, it has certain drawbacks for use in the identification of geographical origin of fish species,” Reilly wrote in the report. “Hence, DNA analysis based on next-generation sequencing and other advanced genetic techniques have been proposed in order to identify the origin or provenance of fish catches. These methods need further development before their use in routine official food control programmes.”​

The report referred to a traceability system, which could identify fish species and geographical location of origin, providing greater transparency in the food supply chain. It identified the FAO Codex Alimentarius Commission’s work in developing international guidelines for fisheries, which would help to mitigate food fraud and provide high standards for food safety management.

Other strategies to tackle the issue include greater international cooperation between food safety authorities and law enforcement, as well as implementing proportionate criminal penalties and fish labelling regulations. These approaches will give consumers the opportunity to find out where the fish in their food products have come from before they make purchases.

The report added: “The introduction of new analytical technologies for fish species identification means that food inspectors and laboratory staff will need to be adequately trained. Food inspectors will also need to be trained in the investigation of fraud.”