Sources: MSC can’t distinguish between certified, non-certified salmon

The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is under fire from processors over allegations plants in China are mislabeling certified salmon and pollock and undermining the program.

However, sources told Undercurrent News the MSC is currently unable to tell the difference between certified and non-certified wild salmon with its DNA testing method.

The MSC will be DNA testing some 400 samples of certified products this year.

However, this testing cannot tell if wild salmon is from Russian, non-certified sources or from Alaskan, certified sources, Undercurrent understands the MSC has told industry figures.

The testing is only "species specific", sources said.

Sources in the US pollock business and the Chinese processing sector told Undercurrent the same mislabeling is happening with Russian pollock.

The MSC did not give a clear reply to Undercurrent on whether their testing could differentiate between certified and non-certified salmon, but said it is currently investigating whether alleged mislabeling is taking place.

“We are in the midst of the investigation on potential concerns related to substitution of certified pollock and salmon in China,” said Chelsea Reinhardt, MSC’s senior supply chain manager.

 "the MSC needs to do something very quickly in order to control the current pollock and salmon situation in China"

“We are taking this investigation seriously and we already have some preliminary findings, which we are following up on in partnership with our certifiers,” Reinhardt told Undercurrent.

The information is “highly confidential” at the moment, she said. “Sharing more information at this point will compromise the efficiency of the investigation.”

The MSC will share results once the work is completed, she said. “We anticipate results by mid-November, although that timeframe depends on the scope of work.”

The MSC does run a DNA testing program on end-of-supply chain products; "however this is separate from the current investigation underway", said Reinhardt.

"We are in the process of identifying R&D priorities for DNA testing for the coming years -- which may consider salmon and pollock -- but do not yet have a confirmed answer on this for you," she said, in response to an Undercurrent request for more details.

One researcher in the US told Undercurrent it is possible to run DNA tests and find out the origin of the salmon.

“We have very good baseline data and can identify Alaska 
and Russian origin fish,” Jim Seeb, a research professor with the School of Aquatic and Fishery Science at Seattle’s University of Washington, said.

However, it is a “no at this time to pollock”, he said.

There would also need to be some proofing done on the salmon data, to test fillets in the market, said Seeb.

It has more been used in the past to identity fishermen's catches in the Pacific, he said. "It would need a little more analysis for the MSC to use it to test finished products."

Extensive DNA data are available to identify chinook, chum, and sockeye salmon to continent of origin, said Seeb.

To date these data have been used to analyze the mixture composition of groups of samples from commercial catch or test survey transects.  Often these mixture assignments can be accurately made to finer scale than continent -- for example, one of several subdivisions of North America.

"Additional modeling and testing is necessary to confirm the accuracy of assigning individual fillets," he said.

More work is also necessary to collect DNA data for coho and pink salmon, said Seeb. This data can be obtained from fresh or frozen fish but not canned, he said.

Fraud allegations

The situation of confusion is said to be used by Chinese processors, currently under pressure to deliver cheap prices to win deals in Europe.

Several sources in China told Undercurrent that fraudulent packing is going on.

Packers in China are using fake documents to sell non-MSC products as certified, said an executive from one China-based processor, who wished to be quoted unnamed.

By the time the MSC finds out, the Chinese packers will have sold thousands of tons of fish as MSC-certified, he said.

The only action the MSC can take is to revoke the plant’s MSC number.

However, the plant can easily change its name and apply for a new number and do the same again, the processor told Undercurrent.

“I think the MSC needs to do something very quickly in order to control the current pollock and salmon situation in China,” he said.

According to this executive, retailers have bought MSC pink portions at raw material cost, at least $1,000 below the market price for MSC fish.

Chinese plants are using non-MSC Russian, Kamchatka pink for sale as MSC-certified, said the executive.

Simple economics suggest something is up, he said.

The European buyers have bought at $6 per kilogram for MSC-certified 250 gram retail packing portions. All of these products will be packed using Russian fish, he said.

“The reason is simple. MSC pink is now about $3 per kilogram cost and freight China (CNF). The recovery of this product is about 50%. Only the raw material itself would bring the cost to $6 per kilogram. Packing is 0.5 and freight 0.2.”

Before the processing cost and margin, the cost to the plant of using MSC fish is $6.7. A reasonable market price should therefore be $7.5 CNF, after adding the processing cost and a margin for the packer, he said.

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