Threat of widespread fish laundering hanging over Europe's restaurants

Written by Lasse Gustavsson on 19 April 2016 in Opinion Plus
Opinion Plus

One in three fish species served in restaurants in Brussels are not what they seem, reveals Lasse Gustavsson.

This shocking and sad reality was revealed by Oceana in 2015 by testing fish from over 150 restaurants including the canteens of the European Commission and Parliament.

Expensive species, such as cod, sole or Bluefin tuna are very often substituted for species up to 40 per cent cheaper, such as Yellowfin tuna or Pangasius, the latter farmed in Southeast Asia.

This ‘fishy business’ caused a scandal in EU circles particularly because the mislabelled fish problem was also found within the restaurants of EU institutions where decision makers eat on a daily basis.


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This raises legitimate questions over the transparency and traceability of seafood products that Europeans eat in restaurants. Most importantly, it undermines the sustainability objectives of the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), as it is closely linked to the under-reporting of species exploitation.

Fish mislabelling hinders consumers’ choice, threatens their wallets and potentially their health, while providing easy access to illegal fish entering the EU market, including endangered species.

It is estimated that today more than 65 per cent of the fish consumed in Europe is imported.

Seafood fraud is a global problem. It has been studied and found all over the world. Globally, it is estimated that the percentage of mislabelled fish amounts to around 30 per cent.

Recent studies conducted in the European Union have shown lower levels of species substitutions, primarily in supermarkets, traditional markets and fishmongers.

However, restaurants are the weak link of fish traceability largely because it is a widely dispersed sector, prone to weaker labelling rules, but also due to limited controls and enforcement.

Consequently, labelling incidents are much more frequently found in restaurants, often serving processed and unrecognisable fish, as opposed to supermarkets and retailers where it is sold as whole.

Studies conducted in European restaurants found mislabelling in 50 per cent of sole served in Germany, 86 per cent in Ireland, 43 per cent of Spain and 10 per cent of sushi in the UK.

This suggests that ‘fish laundering’ is widespread across Europe and is likely a deliberate action by some restaurant owners who take full advantage of the legal loophole in traceability systems to substantially increase their profits by deceiving consumers.

At its next plenary, the European Parliament will vote on a resolution addressing the issue of fish traceability in restaurants, calling for an adequate policy reaction.

It is of uttermost importance that the European Commission recognises the scale of the problem and takes responsibility to make sure restaurants are serving safe, legal and honestly labelled seafood that allows consumers to make more informed seafood choices.

About the author

Lasse Gustavsson is the executive director of Oceana in Europe.

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