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Ask your food for its DNA ID

DNA barcoding reveals seafood fraud.

An article in The Guardian recently reported on how food fraud affected the Amazon’s Pink River Dolphins [1]. The article documented that the dolphins have been used as bait to catch scavenger fishes. It turns out scavenger fishes (e.g. catfish) are then sold as different and more profitable species in the markets because people dislike their status as “scavenger species”. Researchers used DNA bar coding to identify mislabeled species for sale in the markets of Manaus, Brazil, and found that catfish were actually being sold under a total of three false names, ‘douradinha’, ‘douradinho’, and ‘piratinga’ [2]. After reading this article, I became more curious about other mislabeled products in other countries.

A recent paper published in 2013 [3] reviewed cases of mislabeling. They used the term “Economically Motivated Adulterations (EMA)” to describe these cases. Since 1980, they identified 137 cases of food EMA. The most frequent type of mislabeling were fish, other types of seafood, dairy products, fruit juices, oils, and fats. The most frequent EMA cases in the U.S were fish and seafood, totaling 47 cases. DNA barcoding indicated 24 of 96 fish and seafood product samples were mislabeled in New York and Toronto [6]. The problem is more worrisome when food adulteration has health consequence for consumers, most commonly in the form of allergies. For example, in China close to 300,000 children became ill as a result of mislabeling milk products containing melamine [4].

Food fraud also has environmental consequences, especially for endangered fish and seafood. A recent study using DNA barcoding showed that, on average, the mislabeled species sold were actually less expensive (-2.98%) and their harvest more sustainable (+9.51% IUCN status). However, this study also reported that some mislabeled taxa were endangered species, suggesting mislabeling was used as a means to cover up illegal harvest [5].

Hiding information in order to trick consumers to buy their products is troubling for both health and conservation reasons. This mislabeling phenomenon as a whole shows that producers should become more accountable for their fraudulent behavior. While it is very difficult to regulate, some consumers are beginning to only purchase products that explicitly label product origins. Time will tell furthering consequences if mislabeling continues.


Figure1 Source: http://ticotimes.com/costa-rica/dna-helps-stop-illegal-sailfish-fishing


[1] Emma Bryce, “Amazon’s pink river dolphins reveal the bizarre impacts of seafood fraud” The guardian, September 30, 2016. Accessed October 04, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/world-on-a-plate/2016/sep/30/killed-to-catch-a-fish-that-nobody-wants-the-amazons-pink-river-dolphins-reveal-the-bizarre-impacts-of-seafood?CMP=share_btn_fb

[2] Cunha, Haydée A., Vera MF da Silva, Teresa EC Santos, Stella M. Moreira, Nivia AS do Carmo, and Antonio M. Solé-Cava. “When You Get What You Haven’t Paid for: Molecular Identification of “Douradinha” Fish Fillets Can Help End the Illegal Use of River Dolphins as Bait in Brazil.” Journal of Heredity 106, no. S1 (2015): 565-572.

[3] Everstine, Karen, John Spink, and Shaun Kennedy. “Economically motivated adulteration (EMA) of food: common characteristics of EMA incidents.” Journal of Food Protection® 76, no. 4 (2013): 723-735.

[4] Ingelfinger, J.R., 2008. Melamine and the global implications of food contamination. New England Journal of Medicine359(26), pp.2745-2748.

[5] Stawitz, Christine C., Margaret C. Siple, Stuart H. Munsch, Qi Lee, and S. A. F. S. Derby. “Financial and Ecological Implications of Global Seafood Mislabeling.” Conservation Letters (2016).

[6] Wong, Eugene H-K., and Robert H. Hanner. “DNA barcoding detects market substitution in North American seafood.” Food Research International 41, no. 8 (2008): 828-837.

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