Most flake served in the humble fish and chip shop is mislabelled (and might even be endangered)

Internationally endangered species of shark are being served up in humble fish-and-chip wrappers in Australia with scientists warning the trade could be a threat to endangered species.

Researchers from the Adelaide University investigating fish labelling found that three quarters of sharks labelled ‘flake’, were in fact other types of shark.

Flake is a commonly served option in takeaway seafood shops around Australia and should only be used to describe two species: gummy shark and New Zealand rig.

But barely a quarter of samples obtained by researchers from the University of Adelaide were found to be drawn from gummies, which currently has a stable population. Among the other species found were short-fin mako and smooth hammerhead sharks, which are considered endangered and vulnerable according to international standards.

It further adds to controversy relating to food, and seafood fraud – mislabelling of food products, which in turn misleads consumers.

In some jurisdictions, seafood substitution – the selling of fish, seafood or shellfish species under another’s name – is an offence. In South Australia, where the samples were obtained, a person can be fined $50,000 or a company $250,000 for misleading labelling of food products.

But food fraud goes beyond consumer confidence, says Professor Bronwyn Gillanders from the university’s Environment Institute.

“Food fraud in the seafood industry is a growing concern and mislabelling may occur. It can have potential implications on human health, the economy, and species conservation,” Gillanders says.

Only 11 of the 104 retailers were able to correctly identify which species of shark was sold on their premises. A fifth of retailers were found to be selling mislabelled products. Around two thirds of retailers had “ambiguous labelling”.

Defeating seafood fraud, atom by atom

The researchers found umbrella terms for animal products allowed for species misrepresentation that DNA barcoding – a process used to distinguish genes in shark tissue samples – was able to avoid.

The study’s first author Ashleigh Sharrad says her team’s findings emphasise the importance of clear guidelines for seafood product sales.

“Our results highlight the need for clearer national guidelines or labelling laws for shark fillets,” says Sharrad.

“It is important to note that while a broad variety of species are being sold as flake, smaller retailers can’t be accused of mislabelling because they are most likely unaware when they purchase bulk, processed or frozen fish fillets.

“This is the key to building trust across the supply chain, boosting demand for local, sustainable catch and importantly, empowering consumers and retailers to make informed choices.”

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