Fish Fraud, Mislabeled Sushi and Supply Chain Traceability

sushi HLPhoto/Adobe Stock

Nowadays one doesn’t have to be a coffee snob to appreciate a single-origin brew, not when even Starbucks is bandying around words like terroir. The same goes for so-called bean-to-bar chocolate. For years now, businesses and consumers have pored over the provenances of foodstuffs with a fervor that used to be limited to wine.

Seafood may be getting there, too, albeit slowly. Imagine ordering from a menu where each seafood dish comes with a note on where it came from. Jason Busch brought up the farm-to-table concept briefly in a recent webinar on trends in sourcing, saying, “If you go into a high-end sushi restaurant or you go into Whole Foods, it’d be very nice to know where that fish came from.”

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Right now, one can’t even be too sure what species the fish is. Researchers recently found that almost half of the fish served in Los Angeles sushi restaurants is mislabeled. DNA testing showed that what was advertised as halibut was almost always flounder (and oftentimes species of flounder that are overfished, too). Tuna and salmon were usually labeled correctly.

An Opaque Supply Chain


Source: FishWise

Consumers aren’t the only ones getting duped. Considering how widespread mislabeling is for some species of fish but not others, restaurants often do not know what they’re buying. The U.S. imports 90% of its fish supply, a significant percentage of which is from countries with unregulated fish farms.

FishWise, a nonprofit consultancy dedicated to promoting sustainable seafood, recently released a white paper on traceability, “Advancing Traceability in the Seafood Industry: Assessing Challenges and Opportunities.” Total seafood traceability, as defined by FishWise, implies that any “consumer unit of seafood” you order at a restaurant or buy from a retailer can be traced “back to its point of harvest by a vessel or on a farm.” It’s a lofty goal but an important one, as there are a number of serious risks present in seafood supply chains today:

  • Fraud. The LA sushi exposé is one of a string of studies that have shown how common mislabeling of seafood is, though there is disagreement on just how common (estimates are around 15%—20%). The rate is dramatically higher for certain higher-value fish species such as tuna, grouper and sole.
  • Health and safety. Concerns over seafood safety have dropped significantly since the days of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but seafood can still be the cause of many foodborne illnesses. Escolar, a fish often labeled as white tuna or butterfish, leads to unpleasant gastrointestinal symptoms that must remain unspecified on a polite blog like Spend Matters.
  • Illegal activity. Losses to illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing are estimated to be anywhere from $10 billion–$23.5 billion, involving a staggering 11–26 million tons of seafood. In the United States, 20%–32% of wild caught seafood imports are IUU products.

Unsurprisingly, there are numerous challenges preventing supply chain transparency, from language/technological barriers and antiquated IT systems to limited budgets and lack of coordination among governments and companies.


Blockchain technology may soon make supply chain transparency a breeze, but until then it is useful to look at the recommendations that the white paper gave on how businesses can increase the traceability of their supply chains. Although these recommendations are for seafood supply chains, quite a few are applicable to supply chains in general. A few of them are paraphrased below:

  • Conduct a risk assessment to determine high-risk products. Once these products are identified, tracebacks and audits can be conducted.
  • Identify barriers to traceability, such as unidentified steps in the supply chain.
  • Use traceability practices to your competitive advantage, as they can improve your business’s reputation and gain consumer trust.
  • Configure your IT systems so that traceability data can be stored in formats that are easy to query and potential anomalies can be discovered in near real time.

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