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What am I eating? The case for a South African seafood list

When you sit down to a seafood dinner, how can you be sure of what’s on your plate?

When you sit down to a seafood dinner, how can you be sure of what’s on your plate?

Did you know, for instance, that Argentine hake is sometimes passed off as South African hake? Or that cheaper farmed Japanese amberjack is sometimes sold as local, wild-caught yellowtail? And that an unknown species, big-scale mackerel, is sometimes labelled kabeljou because people aren’t familiar with it?

These and other seafood sleights of hand have been highlighted in a paper published in the January 2015 edition of Marine Policy. The paper, titled “Towards a standard nomenclature for seafood species to promote more sustainable seafood trade in South Africa”, sheds light on the present legislative gaps in which seafood mislabelling is allowed to prevail.

The paper, co-authored by Jaco Barendse, from the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University’s Sustainability Research Unit, and WWF seafood industry liaison officer Junaid Francis, calls for the standardisation of the naming of seafood species on the South African market to protect the seafood industry and to prevent further fraud.

It also highlights recent steps taken to address the problem, including the setting up of a working group to establish a standard list of South African seafood names approved by the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS).

The authors argue that mislabelling is being used as a way to sell illegally caught or specially protected species, whereby consumers can unknowingly contribute to the demise of a rare fish species, such as red steenbras. This is often done by using broad collective names such as ‘red fish’ or ‘line fish’ without providing any further details.

Mislabelling of fish and fishery products is recognised as a serious threat to the sustainability of global seafood markets, with an ever-increasing number of published cases of fraud, including in the United States, Canada, Italy and Ireland, they say. The trend is mirrored on the South African market, where two previous studies have detected mislabelling rates of between 20 – 50 per cent.

The paper calls for industry, NGOs and government to work together to address this fraudulent practice by developing a standard list of seafood names.

Lead author Barendse comments: “The current South African labelling and naming regulations fall short of protecting consumers against mislabelling. Some of the issues include inconsistent rules, and the absence of a single policy or document or regulatory authority that determines which trade name should be associated with which specific species. Luckily, we were able to draw on the experiences of other countries and so put forward a set of suggestions for South Africa to improve the local situation.”

Among the steps that have been taken to address the issue are:
  • A working group has been set up to establish a standard list of South African seafood names approved by the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS).
  • This group has already approached (and been given permission by) the SABS to develop a standard list of “Approved Market Names for fishery products for human consumption traded in South Africa” (called SANS 1647).
  • SANS1647 will regulate seafood naming by developing a comprehensive list of approved market names for all species traded in South Africa, both local and imported species, applicable to all processed forms, including fresh, frozen and canned products.
  • The list aims to assign one or the least number of market name/s for each species or species group (for instance yellowtail may only be used to describe the species Seriola lalandi and no other species).
  • Once finalised, responsible industry role players will be encouraged to voluntarily adopt SANS 1647.
While engagement with this standard list will be voluntary, Francis is optimistic: “Through this collaborative, multi-stakeholder approach we hope that a robust standard will be developed which will bring improved transparency to seafood naming by providing consumers with credible information about their seafood, and the assurance that the name presented on the product label accurately reflects the species on offer.”

* The working group comprises relevant government representatives from the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF), SABS and the National Regulator for Compulsory Specifications (NRCS) as well as various industry bodies representing the commercial fishing industry, the import and export sector, retail and supplier sectors, and scientific experts.

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