There’s an interesting new report out from an NGO known as Oceana, and the NYT picked it up here in a story by Elisabeth Rosenthal. The report and story are about ngo advocates, and now the US government, increasingly using science (fast, cheap DNA “bar code” samples) to uncover widespread fraud in the sale of seafood. The fraud is that you pay for a “good” fish but receive a lesser quality fish.
Oceana is a significant, international group created by former Cheers star Ted Danson. Turns out he has quietly spent a couple of decades as an advocate for the oceans. He recently wrote a beautiful and informative book titled Oceana. I found it while looking for book as a birthday present for my oldest daughter, who loves the water and may become a marine biologist. The book and reviews are at: http://oceanabook.net/ . It’s well worth buying if only for the pictures.
On the law and science side, set out below are key excerpts from the NYT article. The facts illustrate how new and cheap scientific testing can cause major change in regulatory enforcement:
“DNA bar coding, as it is called, looks at gene sequences in the fish’s flesh. “The genetics have been revolutionary,” said Stefano Mariani, a marine researcher at University College Dublin, who has published research on the topic. “The DNA bar coding technique is now routine, like processing blood or urine. And we should be doing frequent, random spot checks on seafood like we do on athletes.”
Policing the seafood industry has historically been challenging because even the most experienced fishmongers are hard pressed to distinguish certain steaks or fillets without the benefit of scales or fins. And many arrive in supermarkets frozen and topped with an obscuring sauce.
Older laboratory techniques to identify fish meat looked at the mix of proteins in flesh samples, but were unreliable, expensive and cumbersome. Investigators often relied instead on laborious legwork, tracking inconsistent fish names on paperwork as seafood moved across international borders. Eighty-four percent of seafood consumed in the United States is now imported, often passing through a multistep global supply chain.
With the new genetic techniques, the gene sequence found in a fish sample is compared with an electronic reference library like that maintained by the International Barcode of Life Project, which now covers 8,000 varieties of fish compiled by biologists over the last five years. The testing is now relatively cheap: commercial labs charge about $2,000 for analyzing 100 fish samples, for an average of $20 apiece, but the cost is under $1 per sample for labs that own the equipment.
Douglas Karas, a spokesman for the F.D.A., said in an e-mail that the agency had been working with scientists to “validate” DNA testing for several years. It recently purchased gene sequencing equipment for five F.D.A. field laboratories and hoped to use it “on a routine basis” by the end of this year.”