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Deliberate mislabeling of seafood ‘rife’ in South Korea

The Guardian

Activists welcome the WTO’s ruling in favor of South Korea’s import ban on Japanese seafood following the 2011 Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant disaster during a rally in front of the government complex in Seoul on April 12.

Photo: EPA-EFE

Fraudulent mislabeling of seafood is rampant in South Korea, where one-third of samples in a comprehensive DNA study were found to be missold.

More than half of all sushi samples (53.9 percent) proved to be wrongly labeled, as did more than one-third of fresh fish (38.9 percent) and sashimi (33.6 percent) samples, according to a report published on Tuesday by the Environmental Justice Foundation.

Not a single sample of Chinese white shrimp — also known as fleshy prawn — was the correct species, while nearly a third (27.8 percent) of all minke whale samples were in fact either dolphin, whose meat contains dangerously high mercury levels, or finless porpoise, a vulnerable species protected by South Korean law.

The researchers took samples primarily in the capital, Seoul, where mislabelling was highest in restaurants and fish markets, as well as from online seafood purchases.

However, the findings should not be seen as endemic to Seoul alone, said campaigner Kim Han-min, who served as principal investigator on the study.

“Much of the seafood sold in [South] Korea comes from Japan or China and in some cases there were species that we simply could not identify by DNA, so the number of [fraudulent] examples could actually be higher,” Kim said.

“In the provinces, many supermarkets and big superstores are less regulated and this is something that deserves more attention,” he said.

The findings are likely to put further pressure on South Korea — which has one of the world’s highest rates of seafood consumption per capita — to dramatically improve its voluntary seafood traceability system, which campaigners have described as “woeful and pitiful.”

“These findings are shocking and speak to the failure of the [South] Korean government to take this seriously. The [South] Korean seafood traceability system has been in operation for 11 years but it has fewer than one-fifth of all operators signed up to it,” foundation director Steve Trent said.

“If you have a product like fleshy prawn, where every single sample is mislabeled, how do you know that product hasn’t been fished without slave crews? How do you know where it was fished; how do you know if it’s gone through the necessary sanitary checks?” Trent asked

Seafood fraud affects consumers’ health and their wallets, and also has an impact on the marine environment, as mislabeled seafood often comes from illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

Swordfish mislabeled as bluefin tuna can be sold for four to five times the price, while uncertainty over the origin and identity of seafood products raises concerns over food safety and hygiene, Trent said.

Overall, more than a third (105 out of 302) of all the seafood samples genetically analyzed were mislabeled, the report found.

The highest rates of mislabeling included Japanese eel (67.7 percent), mottled skate (53.3 percent) and common octopus (52.9 percent).

In recent years, stories about “seafood fraud” have increasingly made headlines in South Korea, where fears over imported products from China, as well as Japanese seafood affected by the 2011 Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant meltdown, have increased consumer awareness of the issue.

However, the government has not aligned its food safety programs accordingly, Kim said.

“The government’s traceability system with agricultural meat like cows and pigs has nearly 100 percent coverage, but seafood traceability doesn’t even reach 20 percent: The government makes excuses that there are more species at sea, so traceability is more difficult,” he added.

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