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18th Jun 2021

Fish eaters in Brussels and EU canteens often misled

  • In tourist restaurants in Brussels (not necessarily the ones pictured) consumers were misled in 28.7 percent of the cases. (Photo: Ludovic Lubeigt)

Restaurant customers in Brussels are being misled almost one in every three times they eat fish, a non-profit environmental group said on Tuesday (3 November).

Even the restaurants of the European Commission and European Parliament are breaking the rules, Lasse Gustavsson, head of Oceana, told journalists.

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  • The alleged mislabelling in EU canteens was not necessarily with a profit motive. 'Hake was sold instead of cod, while cod is more expensive' (Photo: Oceana)

Oceana took 280 fish samples in 150 restaurants in the EU capital from March to June 2015. It had the DNA of the samples analysed by the Laboratory of Biodiversity and Evolutionary Genomics of the University of Leuven.

The researchers found that 30 percent of the fish they bought, was not what was specified on the menu.

“We wanted to buy five different species, but we ended up buying 36 different species”, said Gustavsson.

He said that the research did not reveal why or where in the value chain the cheating was taking place.

“Some probably do it to increase profit”, said Gustavsson.

In sushi restaurants, the expensive Atlantic bluefin tuna was found to be substituted by cheaper tropical tuna species. 12 of the 21 samples (54.5 percent) of sushi bought in Brussels were not the fish species the menu had promised.

In tourist fish restaurants in downtown Brussels, where one might expect some dodgy practices, the level of cheating was actually lower than in sushi restaurants and the EU canteens, but still consumers were misled in 62 of 215 samples, or 28.7 percent.

Although the sample numbers are small from a statistical point of view, Gustavsson said they give a "very clear indication" that something is wrong.

EU canteens sold expensive fish as cheap fish

In two of the canteens belonging to the EU institutions, Oceana found that 16 out of 38 samples had been mislabelled. Interestingly, the fish were not always substituted by cheaper types.

“Hake was sold instead of cod, while cod is more expensive”, noted Gustavsson, saying the situation in the EU canteens amounted to “chaos”.

“Both the European Parliament and European Commission restaurants didn't even fulfil the basic requirement of telling the customers: you are buying X”, he added.

Commission spokesperson Alexander Winterstein said on Tuesday "the relevant Belgian authorities" are responsible for carrying out checks in the EU canteens.

"Of course we assume that these checks are being done and [that] there are no discrepancies between what is labelled and what is being brought into our canteens", said Winterstein. He added that the Commission will "be in touch with the three companies concerned and follow up as appropriate with them".

Winterstein said the Federal Agency for the Safety of the Food Chain is responsible for the controls, something which the Agency's spokesperson, Lieve Busschots, said was "a mistake". She said the cases, if true, were "economic fraud" and fall under the responsibility of Belgium's federal ministry of economy.

The economy ministry said it opened 264 investigations in 2013 and 2014 in all of Belgium, but that it does not keep a record how many of those investigations were in restaurants, only that it mostly carries out checks in supermarkets, wholesalers, and fishmongers.

“The checks take place less often in restaurants for two reasons: we hardly ever receive complaints about restaurants; a restaurant is not obliged to mention the type of the fish on the menu", spokesperson Chantal De Pauwe said in an e-mailed statement, adding that if a customer orders a specific type of fish, this should "of course" be the fish served on the plate.

A spokesperson for Sodexo, which was responsible for the canteen in the European Parliament during the time of Oceana's research, told this website in an e-mail that she would be "very surprised if there were irregularities", adding that the company has a "very strict fish policy and very strict oversight".

Sustainable fishing?

The findings added new doubts over about whether the fish Europeans buy is caught sustainably, which is the main aim of the EU's Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).

“Clearly if you have mislabelled fish, potentially illegal fish on the market, that's undermining the intentions of the CFP”, said Gustavsson.

He also said that “consumers have a right to know” what they eat, and that mislabelled fish may pose health dangers for those with allergies. Better labelling is required, he noted.

But Oceana also said that consumers have some responsibility in knowing the approximate price associated with an expensive species. “If a seafood item is being sold at a price that seems too good to be true, probably it is not [the species in question]”, it said.

Previous probes by other NGOs found that fish in restaurants was often mislabelled in Spain (30 percent of samples), and Italy (32 percent), but relatively little in France (4 percent) and in the UK (6 percent).

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