Find No Evidence of Seafood Fraud in Iceland Despite 2016 Study Results

fish restaurant

Restaurant inspections in Reykjavík have failed to find evidence of seafood fraud indicated by a 2016 study that made international headlines recently, Vísir reports. The study indicated that Icelandic restaurants had some of the highest rates of mislabelled fish in all of Europe. Óskar Ísfeld Sigurðsson, head of food control at the Reykjavík Public Health Authority, says the study results do not reflect food inspectors’ experience.

UK media outlet the Guardian published an article last week consolidating 44 studies of seafood products sold in restaurants, markets, and auctions around the world over the past several years. The article stated that of some 9,000 products, nearly 40% were incorrectly labelled. In some cases a cheaper fish was labelled as a more expensive variety, while in others potentially poisonous species were mislabelled, leading to health risk.

Study Suggested 40% of Fish Mislabelled

One of the studies cited was published in 2018 and concerned restaurants across Europe. It found the highest percentage of incorrect labelling in Spain, Iceland, France, and Germany. The Icelandic samples for the study were taken at 22 restaurants in 2016. DNA analysis revealed that 23% of the samples belonged to another species than was advertised and fish had been mislabelled at 40% of restaurants.

Jónas Rúnar Viðarsson of Icelandic Food and Biotech Consulting Company Matís was one of the authors of the study. He stated that a comparable inspection has not taken place since. Conducing such studies is expensive and requires special funding. “It is mainly the Public Health Authority in Reykjavík that has some ability to do something, but it also has to monitor a lot of restaurants. These kinds of studies are expensive,” he stated.

Mistakes More Likely Explanation than Scam

Óskar Ísfeld Sigurðsson, head of food control at the Reykjavík Public Health Authority, says the organisation has placed great emphasis on tracing the origin of food products in recent years. While they do not carry out DNA testing like that conducted in the 2016 study, they inspect restaurant menus and whether the correspond to raw ingredients in their freezers and fridges.

“If we see expensive fish on the menu and some cheaper fish in the fridge, it would arouse our suspicion, but we do not see any examples of this. These results don’t match our experience,” Óskar said about the 2016 study. Óskar says he expressed doubt about the study’s results when it was first published, saying he didn’t believe it painted a realistic picture of the situation. He requested information on which restaurants had been found to falsely label fish, but was denied, as the data was collected for a scientific study and not public health monitoring.

According to Óskar, the mislabelling could more likely be attributed to servers incorrectly naming fish on the menu or simply unintentional mistakes. There have even been examples of restaurants selling more expensive species as cheaper species, something no restaurateur would do on purpose.

E. Coli Found in Icelandic Meat

E. coli was found in 30% of lamb samples and 11.5% of beef samples in a test carried out by the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST). The particular strain discovered is known as STEC, or shiga-toxin producing E. coli. This is the first time lamb and beef have been screened for STEC in Iceland.

The testing was carried out on around 600 samples of lamb, beef, pork, and chicken of both Icelandic and foreign origin between March and December 2018. The purpose of the testing was to determine the prevalence of pathogenic micro-organisms in products when they reach the consumer, and for this reason the samples were taken from shops.

Campylobacter and salmonella were not detected in pork or chicken samples, with the exception of a single sample of pork from Spain. MAST attributes this to improved preventative measures in slaughterhouses.

Strain can cause illness

Shiga-toxin producing E. coli is a toxigenic species of E. coli. STEC can cause serious illness in humans. Common symptoms include diarrhoea, but contraction of the bacteria can also lead to a type of kidney damage known as HUS (Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome). People can contract STEC through contaminated food or water, direct contact with infected animals, or from an environment contaminated by infected animals’ feces.

Part of natural flora

The results of the study indicate that STEC is part of the natural microbial flora of Icelandic cattle and sheep. “It is clear that STEC must be studied more closely in meat and preventative measures in slaughterhouses and meat processing must be intensified to reduce the likelihood that STEC enters meat,” reads MAST’s press release on the findings. “The cleanliness of the livestock is also important here, and it is therefore necessary to prevent the slaughtering of unclean livestock in slaughterhouses.”

Consumer prevention

MAST points to several ways consumers can reduce the risk of infection from salmonella, campylobacter, and E. coli, including cooking meat all the way through and taking care to avoid cross-contamination. Most E. coli is found on the surface of meat, and therefore is killed by frying or grilling, but when meat is ground, the bacteria is distributed throughout. Therefore, hamburgers and other types of ground meat should be cooked through.