Technology Helps Fight Fraud—It’s No Joke

'April Fish' Day--on April 1 in Italy, France, & Belgium, people try to hang paper fish on each other's backs as a trick. Here's a picture of our favorite 'paper pollock' Wally. Read this comic strip featuring Wally, written and created by NOAA Teacher at Sea Catherine Fox.

"April Fish" Day—on April 1 in Italy, France, and Belgium, people try to hang paper fish on each other's backs as a trick. Here's a picture of our favorite "paper pollock" Wally. Read this comic strip featuring Wally, written and created by NOAA Teacher at Sea Cathrine Fox.

Sometimes referred to as All Fools' Day, April 1st is widely known as a day for practical jokes. But did you know that in Italy, France, and Belgium, this day was traditionally celebrated as “April Fish Day?” Children and adults alike tacked paper fishes on one another’s backs and shouted "April Fish!"—in their respective languages, of course.

 

So, with April Fish Day in mind, let’s take a closer look at how seafood fraud pulls some tricks of its own. But what is seafood fraud, you ask? To put it simply, anytime consumers or buyers purchase a seafood product that is not what they are paying for—is fraud.

 

The most common form of seafood fraud is short-weighting, which happens when processors overglaze, soak, and/or over bread seafood to manipulate or misrepresent its weight. Products might also be mislabeled to avoid higher import tariffs. However, the practice of “seafood substitution” is what has made recent news. Seafood substitution occurs when a species is mislabeled and substituted in whole or in part for a different species—disguising a low valued species as a more expensive one. The good news is that the seafood industry, academia, and federal and state governments are proactively developing solutions to protect consumers from fraud.  The Better Seafood Board Exit disclaimer, formed by members of the National Fisheries Institute in 2007, helps restaurants, retail operations, and manufacturers report suppliers who commit economic fraud. The board encourages seafood buyers who have unresolved issues with suppliers for selling short weight or otherwise mislabeled products to contact their hotline at 1-866-956-4272 to document these issues.

 

 

Sorting the survey catch

In our digital age, technology is helping fight fraud in more ways than one. Many companies are using QR codes—digital codes that redirect consumers to a website—where they can learn specific details about their seafood. One California sushi joint is even serving their fish labeled with a QR code printed on edible rice paper, which directs diners to sustainability information from yours truly—FishWatch.gov.

 

Seafood distributors and retailers are busily investing in new ways to increase our ability to track seafood from ocean to plate. Through Washington, D.C.-based ProFish, restaurants that purchase ProFish seafood can provide diners with QR codes linking to the supplier’s FishPrint program Exit disclaimer, which shows when and where the seafood was harvested, who caught it, and how sustainable it is, along with the Latin genus of that species and nutritional information for good measure.

 

Tagging fish is another way to trace seaood products from origin to market. By tagging red snapper and grouper harvested in the Gulf of Mexico with unique numbers, Gulf Wild™ Exit disclaimer tracks each fish back to its fishermen and resolves any fraud issues from the start. Chefs and consumers can look up a product’s tagging number on a website displaying a photo and bio of the fishermen who caught it, as well as a map of where and when the fish was caught. And yet another program, Gulf Seafood Trace Exit disclaimer, uses electronic trip ticket systems to find and confirm data about a multitude of fisheries products—from their harvest location all the way to the consumer’s dinner plate.

 

'April Fish' Day--on April 1 in Italy, France, & Belgium, people try to hang paper fish on each other's backs as a trick. Here's a picture of our favorite 'paper pollock' Wally. Read this comic strip featuring Wally, written and created by NOAA Teacher at Sea Catherine Fox.

(passionfish.org) is a nonprofit ocean/seafood sustainability education organization that for several years, has celebrated April Fish Day (Poisson d'Avril) holiday to partner with various restaurants so they can help introduce really good seafood to people.

And the next thing on the menu to fight fraud? DNA testing. Some seafood distributors and retailers may start using more genetic analysis to accurately identify species. One benefit to DNA testing is that scientists can examine the genetic material of a fish in many forms, be it fresh fillet, frozen, raw, canned, or cooked. NOAA’s Marine Forensics Program uses forensics for species identification, and NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center scientists perform stable isotope analyses to distinguish between two different life history forms of the same species. In the future, some testing technologies might even hold promise for detecting a product’s region of origin using stable isotope analysis. NOAA’s Seafood Inspection Program, along with other federal labs, is currently working to compile the genetic sequences of over 200 species for genetic identification purposes.

 

What else does the future hold for traceability technology? “I’ve heard that 60 percent of internet users are getting to webpages from their smart phones,” says John Rorapaugh, director of sustainable initiatives at ProFish, “so we’re expecting that in the next 5 years, hand-held DNA testing devices may be around.”

 

While you might be busy tacking a fish on someone’s back this April Fool’s Day, the evolving technologies and development of traceability strategies are already helping us keep better track of our seafood’s identity and sustainability. This makes seafood fraud harder to commit and less likely to pull the wool over our…taste buds?