Customers of fish and chip shops in South Australia eat both threatened and imported shark species labeled ‘flake’ with less than a third of servings meeting seafood grading criteria, according to an investigation by the University of Adelaide.
The Australian Fish Names Standard states that only two species of shark – the gum shark and the New Zealand drill rig – must be sold as scales in Australia.
The standard states that other sharks must be classified according to their type, but it is not enforceable.
DNA analysis of chips purchased from 96 fish and chip shops and 10 fresh fish retailers in Adelaide and coastal South Australia revealed widespread false markers.
The analysis, published in the journal Food Control, found that only 29 servings were actually gummy sharks, along with eight other species, including three not found in Australian waters.
Three servings of chips were narrow hounds – an endangered shark caught in South America.
Analysis of the shells, all of which were purchased between March and August 2021, could not identify where the sharks were caught, but many of the meals came from species swimming in Australian waters.
It included two servings of shortfin mako shark, one smooth-bore hammerhead, 19 schooling sharks and 15 servings of brindle shark.
Professor Bronwyn Gillanders, a marine biologist and one of the study’s authors, said some consumers will buy chips thinking it’s a sustainable option “and sometimes it isn’t”.
She said it was “terrifying” to learn that the endangered species was being sold as chips, but said fish and chip shops likely bought the chips without realizing their true origins.
In the study, which was led by researcher Ashley Schradd, the authors say that mislabeling also increases the risk that consumers will buy more long-lived sharks that contain higher levels of heavy metals.
There have been concerns about the flake for about a decade, said Leo Gueda, a shark scientist with the Australian Marine Conservation Society.
While the Australian government has claimed that all of its fisheries are sustainable, he said it allows the import of “critically endangered sharks from questionable international fisheries to feed the unwitting Australian punter.”
He said, “Microlabeling seafood is simply a non-negotiable, deceiving the consumer and passing off any type of shark as ‘flake’ is like passing off red meat from cows, pigs, lamb, horses and kangaroos as beef.”
Simon Boag, executive officer with the Southern Shark Industry Alliance – an industry group that represents commercial fishermen who target gummy sharks – said people selling the chips could simply choose not to comply with the Australian fish naming standard.
“We are terrified. I want to know where.” [flake] Coming from and if it’s a flake, it has to be a peeler. Consumers have the right to know where the veneers come from. We want to see legislation for the Australian Fish Names Standard.
“Fish and chip shops only buy as cheap as possible but who knows what their sustainability credentials look like [for the flake being consumed]. “
The consumer watchdog, ACCC, has been clear that customers cannot be misled, Boag said, and if three-quarters of the chips sold fail to meet the standard “then we believe this misleads customers.”
Michael Kitchener, executive director at the Master Fishmongers Association of Australia, which represents retailers of fresh fish, said consumers should ask retailers where the chips come from and what types are sold. If the seller doesn’t know, they have the option to buy something else.
“if [a retailer’] I can’t tell you where he’s from and what he’s like, that’s a problem,” he said.
The Albanian government promised to introduce mandatory “country of origin” labeling rules for seafood sold in hospitality venues such as cafes and restaurants, and issued a discussion paper for comment.
Assistant Secretary for Commerce Tim Ayres said Australia was home to a “world-class seafood industry”, and “consumers should have access to the information they need to buy fresh, quality produce with confidence”.
“This study reinforces the fact that many consumers currently do not know where their seafood comes from.”
He said making country-of-origin classification “clearer, simpler and mandatory for seafood in hospitality venues” was a priority.