Latest DNA results confirm integrity of MSC Chain of Custody — MSC
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Independent DNA testing at TRACE

Independent DNA testing at TRACE

Latest DNA results confirm integrity of MSC Chain of Custody

Mar 18, 2013

UPDATE: Read our new December 2013 DNA test results here >

Consumers and seafood buyers in key markets across the world can be confident that products bearing the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) ecolabel are correctly labelled, according to the latest results of the MSC’s DNA testing program, published today. 

In the most extensive testing of MSC labelled products carried out to date – 381 samples taken from retail packed products, fresh fish counters, and catering restaurants in 14 different markets - the MSC found that the overall mislabelling rate for MSC certified products was one (1) per cent, or just three mislabelled samples.

David Agnew, MSC director of standards, said: "The MSC has used DNA testing since 2009 as one part of its strategy to monitor the effectiveness of its Chain of Custody standard for seafood traceability in controlling the processing, packing, labelling and movement of MSC certified seafood around the world. Today’s results show that our program provides a high level of integrity and assurance that MSC labelled products are traceable to certified fisheries, and that customers are not being misled."

Two of the three mislabelled samples were from a single supplier, and found to be Atlantic cod, labelled as Pacific cod. This supply chain has now been investigated and the fish found to be from an MSC certified Atlantic cod fishery. So, although mislabelling has occurred, the substitution was of one certified species by another. The third sample was Atlantic cod which, potentially, originated from a catch area not covered by an MSC certified fishery. This supply chain is still under investigation.

Negative results in detail

Labelled DNA result
Pacific cod Atlantic cod
Pacific cod  Atlantic cod 
Atlantic cod  Barents Sea cod (60 % probability 

Strategic prioritisation of species and population tests

The DNA testing carried out in 2012 used a combination of tests to assess whether a product labelled as a certain species, for example, walleye pollock or hake, is in fact that species. While such species-level tests cannot distinguish between MSC and non-MSC certified samples of the same species, they can validate that MSC-labelled products are correctly identified by species. This kind of testing is particularly useful for species where it has been shown there is a high rate of substitution, such as many whitefish products.

Where relevant and possible, the testing also included population-level tests capable of linking a sample of fish to a specific geographical location or catch area. This latter test is a particularly powerful tool, capable of detecting a case where a product labelled as an MSC certified stock of a particular species, such as Atlantic cod, does not, in fact, originate in a catch area covered by an MSC certified fishery.

Chelsea Reinhardt, head of the MSC supply chain program, said, "We’ve kept a deliberately strong strategic focus on developing DNA tests for species or populations that are considered higher risk for substitution or mislabelling. These results should therefore be considered an upper level estimate for the overall rate of mislabelling across the full range of MSC certified products in the market today. This compares very favourably with the small control group of non-MSC certified products that we also tested, and with recent industry reports that indicate high rates of mislabelling across different sectors."

MSC invests in supply chain oversight and support for partners

The MSC continues to expand its supply chain monitoring and investment in the following ways:

  • Ongoing commitment to annual DNA testing;
  • Supporting research and development to expand the range of species- and population-level tests available;
  • Extending the DNA sampling strategy to permit certifiers to collect samples from within supply chains, rather than (as now) only at the end of the chain;
  • Increasing transparency in supply chains through developing a pilot project for an online transaction database. This will allow verification of purchases and sales transactions of MSC certified seafood products between buyers and sellers and can be used to alert auditors to any potential discrepancies in advance of an audit;
  • Increasing the use of product tracebacks and supply chain reconciliations (comparing purchase and sales volumes across an entire supply chain) to monitor high risk areas and investigate concerns raised.

Comprehensive review of pollock supply chains concludes no fraud

The MSC recently conducted a comprehensive review of pollock supply chains from the US into China and back into Europe, following concerns expressed by industry partners about the possibility of product substitution.

To conduct this investigation, the MSC cross-checked the purchase, sale and processing information from 68 processors in China with sales records from exporters in the US and purchase records from importers in Europe. The review covered over one year’s worth of trade and a total of 18,000 tonnes of pollock exported from the US. No evidence of product substitution was found, although some discrepancies in records indicated the potential for substitution to take place. The MSC was able, as a result of this investigation, to refer specific certificate holders to certifiers for further independent investigation and action.

David Agnew, MSC director of standards, said: "MSC certified fisheries and suppliers worldwide are committed to the program and very supportive of the MSC’s efforts to strengthen the integrity of the chain of transactions between buyers and sellers. I’d like to thank the companies based in the United States, China and Europe for their co-operation in providing the data that allowed us to carry out this detailed investigation across complex seafood supply chains, and to refer our findings to independent auditors for further investigation and decision.

"We’re continuing to invest in the robustness of our Chain of Custody standard, and its fitness and relevance for the global seafood market today, through expert policy development, our DNA program and support and education in our certification requirements to partners. These measures will ensure that the MSC ecolabel continues to provide customers with the assurance that they have come to expect that the product they are buying originates from a certified source."

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