Friday, April 24, 2015

Will the Hunter eliminate fish fraud?

Approximately one-third of seafood sold in the United States is mislabeled. Globally, seafood fraud averages 22% and includes any practice that misleads consumers about their seafood in order to increase profits. Seafood fraud harms society in a number of ways. Legitimate fishermen who follow applicable laws and regulations have to compete with illegitimately caught seafood that is laundered into the market, depressing prices and forcing out those who fish by the rules. Mislabeled seafood may physically harm consumers when cheaper, less nutritious and potentially harmful substitutes are labeled as higher quality fish. Seafood fraud harms consumers economically when they pay more for an inferior product and are misled about the availability of a limited resource. Society loses as a result of overfishing and unsustainable practices that threaten ecological diversity.

In March of this year President Obama‘s Task Force on Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing and Seafood Fraud released its action plan that “articulates the aggressive steps that federal agencies will take both domestically and internationally to implement the recommendations” of the task force. The plan is indeed aggressive, calling for final rulemaking to collect information on at risk species as soon as September 2016. In theory, consumers will be able to track their seafood from bait to plate including information on species, geographic origin, and means of production.

The USDA’s recent announcement that it will propose organic standards for farmed fish makes increased traceability in seafood even more important. Seafood is already one of the most mislabeled products, and organic labels are also subject to food fraud.

While increased traceability is important, it relies heavily on data collection and documentation provided by those in the supply chain. When these people are already engaged in fraudulent behavior, there is reason to be skeptical about the veracity of the data they supply. As a result, audits and testing will remain an important tool in rooting out seafood fraud. One such test is the Hunter, developed by Baltimore-based InstantLabs. With the simple swab of a fish, the Hunter can identify different seafood species in less than two hours. The portable, desk-top sized device allows end users with minimal science training to quickly determine the identity of seafood. While its ability to identify different seafood varieties is currently limited—the device can identify Atlantic blue crab, and Atlantic and Coho Salmon—the company plans to develop and launch tests for sockeye and Chinook salmon, catfish, red snapper, grouper, and tilapia by the end of the year. When available, these tests will allow those in the seafood supply chain to test the most commonly mislabeled fish on the market.

As with any new technology, cost is always a concern. Because the company is privately held, it has not released detailed information about cost other than to state that the equipment and test kits are generally less expensive (and much faster) than using labs. As demand for the technology grows, the company should be able to scale up production and make the equipment even more affordable. Moreover, increased demand will increase competition as others enter the market.

The fact that seafood fraud harms all of society coupled with increased regulatory efforts to reduce fraud means the government, retailers, restaurants, and other end users will likely demand more safeguards and testing from those throughout the supply chain. While completely eliminating food fraud in the United States seems unlikely, efficient and affordable technology like the Hunter will be an important tool in significantly reducing the amount of seafood fraud.

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