Fish and chip shop customers in South Australia are eating threatened and imported shark species labelled as “flake” with less than a third of servings meeting seafood labelling standards, according to an investigation by the University of Adelaide.
The Australian Fish Names Standard says only two types of shark – gummy shark and New Zealand rig – should be sold as flake in Australia.
The standard says other shark should be labelled according to its species, but it is not enforceable.
DNA analysis of flake bought at 96 fish and chip shops and 10 fresh fish retailers in Adelaide and coastal South Australia revealed widespread mislabelling.
Only 29 servings were actually gummy shark, the analysis published in the journal Food Control found, alongside a further eight species, including three not found in Australian waters.
Three of the servings of flake were narrownose smooth-hound – a critically endangered shark caught in South America.
The analysis of the flake, all bought between March and August 2021, could not determine where the sharks were caught but many servings came from species that do swim in Australian waters.
They included two servings of short-fin mako shark, one of smooth hammerhead, 19 of school shark and 15 servings of whiskery shark.
Prof Bronwyn Gillanders, a marine biologist and one of the study’s authors, said some consumers would buy flake thinking it was a sustainable option “and sometimes it’s not”.
She said it was “horrifying” to know that critically endangered species were being sold as flake, but said the fish and chip shops had likely bought the fillets without being aware of its true origins.
In the study, led by researcher Ashleigh Sharrad, the authors say the mislabelling also raised the risk of consumers buying more long-lived sharks with higher levels of heavy metals.
Leo Guida, shark scientist at the Australian Marine Conservation Society, said there had been concerns about flake for about a decade.
While the Australian government claimed all its fisheries were sustainable, he said it was allowing the importation of “critically endangered sharks from questionable international fisheries to feed the unwitting Aussie punter.”
He said: “Accurate seafood labelling is simply a non-negotiable, duping the consumer and passing off any shark species as ‘flake’ is like passing off red meat from cows, pigs, lamb, horses and kangaroo all as beef.”
Simon Boag, executive officer of of the Southern Shark Industry Alliance – an industry group representing commercial fishers targeting gummy shark – said people selling flake could simply choose not to comply with the Australian Fish Names Standard
“We are appalled. I want to know where [flake] is coming from and if it’s flake, then it should be flake. Consumers have the right to know where the flake is coming from. We want to see the Australian Fish Names Standard legislated.
“The fish and chip shops are just buying the cheapest flake they can but who knows what the sustainability credentials are like [for the flake being consumed].”
Boag said the consumer watchdog, the ACCC, was clear that customers can not be misled and if three quarters of the flake being sold failed to meet the standard “then we think that’s misleading customers.”
Michael Kitchener, executive officer at the Master Fish Merchants’ Association of Australia, representing fresh fish retailers, said consumers should ask retailers where the flake is from and what species was being sold. If the seller didn’t know, then they had the choice to buy something else.
“If [a retailer’] can’t tell you where it’s from and what it is, then that’s an issue,” he said.
The Albanese government has promised to introduce mandatory “country of origin” labelling rules for seafood sold in hospitality venues like cafes and restaurants, and has released a discussion paper for comment.
Assistant minister for trade, Tim Ayres, said Australia was home to a “world-class seafood industry” and consumers “should have the information they need to confidently buy high-quality fresh produce.”
“This study reinforces the fact that currently many consumers are in the dark on where their seafood comes from.”
Making country of origin labelling “clearer, simpler and mandatory for seafood in hospitality settings” was a priority, he said.