Expert Debunks College Student’s Research Project Alleging “Traces” of Dolphin Bycatch in Canned Tuna
“A study by a food engineering student…”
That’s how a recent item from Seafood Source begins, describing alleged evidence of the presence of bycatch in samples of canned tuna purchased in Mexico.
Specifically, the study purported to show that of fifteen cans of tuna purchased in Mexico, “three were found to contain traces of dolphin DNA, confirming the presence of dolphin meat.”
That’s an explosive claim… and ultimately an inaccurate one. No bycatch, no dolphin – it’s just that simple.
From the start, it was unclear how reliable the specific methods employed to isolate and identify the purported DNA were. We knew that attempts to determine DNA sources in canned product were exceedingly difficult. Why? Because the product is cooked in the process, degrading the proteins in the tuna inside the can. And even if the methods could reliably pick up these traces, we knew there were any number of other human errors and environmental factors that could have led to its presence. As the world has learned all too well these last months, false positives in protein tests are real, and not as rare as any of us would like.
As it turns out the skepticism surrounding this report was justified, and then some. Or, as Atuna put it: “Expert Shreds Dolphin Meat in Canned Tuna Study”. Here’s the crux of it:
“Enrique de la Vega, a molecular biologist with over 15 years of experience with PCR testing, told Atuna that a series of essential steps were skipped by the student and her supervisors in charge of the research, which could explain the reported findings.
“Without these steps, it’s impossible to reach the conclusion that the dolphin DNA was present in the cans tested without a shadow of a doubt,” said the scientist.”
Among the missed steps and irregularities de la Vega identified:
- The study did not control for the presence of human DNA from the very people handling the product, which could lead to false positives.
- It used different DNA extraction methods for the tuna sample than the other products tested, meaning there was no apples-to-apples comparison between the “positive” tuna result and other results using the same method.
- It conducted the test at a lower temperature than recommended, resulting in non-specific results, which the student then misinterpreted.
- The student conducted more match tests, or “cycles of amplification”, than normal. The more cycles conducted, the higher the chance of false positives.
- Perhaps most glaringly, the student never took the samples that turned back “positive” and further analyzed them to confirm the DNA found was actually dolphin.
The overall conclusion? “Essential scientific steps were not included in the methodology used for the research, making it impossible to even claim that dolphin DNA was found in tuna cans, much less dolphin meat.”
The interesting thing is, even in the absence of de la Vega’s specific and expert critique, the chances that this project found actual bycatch DNA in tuna—especially if that tuna was subject to dolphin-safe labeling—was always going to be vanishingly small. In fact, the whole enterprise seemed to rest on a false understanding of what bycatch is and how it affects—or rather does not affect—what goes into the finished product.
The student author refused to identify the brand of tuna she used in her project. But in North America, bycatch is simply not canned with tuna, and for companies operating in the United States, the Food and Drug Administration imposes rigorous identity standards on everything canned, processed, and sold. Bycatch simply never makes it into the processing supply chain.
Luckily, the discredited research never made it into wide circulation. But it could have – and that would have been a huge disservice to consumers, and an undeserved smear against tuna companies who are acting ethically and responsibly.
2020 Global Seafood Market Conference (GSMC)
REGISTER NOW for the 2020 Global Seafood Market Conference taking place January 21-23 at the JW Marriott Grande Lakes in Orlando, FL. Questions? Contact Suzanne Low at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2020 NFI Annual Chowder Party
REGISTER NOW and Kick-off the 2020 Seafood Expo North America Show with old friends and new. NFI’s Annual Chowder Party to be held on Saturday, March 14th from 5:30 pm – 7:30 pm at the beautiful Westin Boston Waterfront, conveniently located adjacent to the Boston Convention Center.
New York’s Attorney General Focuses on Fish Fraud
December 17, 2018 Washington, DC– An investigation by New York’s Attorney General that targeted 155 stores across 29 supermarket brands found mislabeled seafood about a quarter of the time.
The report labeled “Fishy Business, Seafood Fraud and Mislabeling in New York State Super Markets” used DNA testing to determine if what was on the label was actually being sold. After 77 of 286 samples came back mislabeled, New York’s Attorney General, Barbara D. Underwood said, “it’s clear that seafood fraud isn’t just a fluke”
As part of today’s report New York’s Attorney General announced her office would be “taking enforcement action” against at least five supermarkets.
“While disappointed in the report’s findings, the BSB is pleased to see the accompanying enforcement,” said Lisa Weddig, Secretary of the Better Seafood Board. “Here we have regulators putting the focus and effort needed into an investigation that goes beyond a press release. Work that uses new resources and existing laws to track down the source of fish fraud can and will have a real impact in the marketplace.”
The Attorney General’s report included a section on what leads to mislabeling, clearly recognizing the need for a multifaceted understanding of the issue in order to address it. The report notes “intentional fraud,” “negligence” and “mistake/error” can all contribute to mislabeling. But it also highlights that laws already on the books, “hold sellers of seafood and other retail products strictly liable for the accuracy of their marketing representations.”
2019 Global Seafood Market Conference (GSMC)-A must-attend industry event!
REGISTER now for the Global Seafood Market Conference (GSMC)!
Entering its seventh year, the GSMC has established itself as an unmatched venue for seafood marketplace data. Combining expert commentary with deep analysis, the GSMC offers attendees a multi-lensed perspective of the issues affecting supply, sales and consumption for seafood in the year ahead. To view agenda, attendee list and register, click here. Check out the video below prior to arrival in Coronado, CA.
2016 NFI Political Conference
The National Fisheries Institute invites you to Washington, D.C. for NFI’s annual Political Conference, September 12 – September 15, 2016 at the Loews Madison Hotel. This is NFI’s premier Washington, D.C. event, and gives you and your company a unique opportunity to raise priority public policy issues with your congressional delegation and key regulators, while enjoying our Nation’s Capital at its fall best.
NFI, NGOs and a Real Mission That Goes Beyond Rhetoric
The National Fisheries Institute (NFI) is proud of our association with some of the world’s leading seafood sustainability organizations, like NOAA’s Marine Fisheries Advisory Committee (MAFAC), the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF.)
NFI was an early and steadfast supporter of the Magnuson Stevens Act reauthorization and of the Port State Measures. In fact an NFI employee was detailed for portions of time over a three-year period to assist the State Department team in negotiating that accord.
Our President was a long standing member of the MSC Board of Directors.
We continue to be impressed with the job done by ISSF, the millions spent on sustainability research with on-the-water results, its work with countless NGOs, and its efforts to ensure that countries and tuna RFMOs make the right sustainability decisions.
We’re especially proud of the fact that platinum level groups like the Global Environment Facility, the World Bank, the Walton Family Foundation, NOAA, and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation have all funded or co-funded projects with ISSF, a testament to just how well regarded the group is in the real world of seafood sustainability.
We are proud of all of our partnerships, big and small. Sometimes it’s a small, local group in Indonesia. Sometimes it’s a global workhorse like ISSF. We will work with sensible NGOs when our interests align. But we are also proud to call groups out when they stray towards the crutch of erroneous rhetoric. Alliances built on a shared interest in the future of seafood are coveted relationships. Nonsensical rantings from marginalized fundraising organizations are noise that distracts NFI and responsible, collaborative partnerships from an important mission.
New Round of Reporting Raises More Questions About Proposed EU Live Lobster Ban
This week, there’s a new round of reporting on the potential EU ban of live lobsters from North America. The headlines alone illustrate the fact that there are serious questions about the validity of the accusations being lobbed by Sweden:
- Trade specialists question science behind proposed export ban on lobsters
- Are Maine lobsters invading Europe? Even among Swedes, not everyone’s buying it
- Shellfish Behavior: US Lobster Industry at Odds With Sweden
From flat-out denying there’s any scientific basis for the proposed ban to highlighting that any prohibition would be a business boon for Swedish lobstermen, the latest reporting shows a narrative taking shape that’s likely far more about trade than taxonomy:
- “Exporters and some scientists have scoffed at the Swedish concerns, saying that the ‘invasion’ of North American lobsters involves only two or three dozen lobsters caught in European waters over the course of nearly a decade.”
- “Robert Bayer, executive director of the University of Maine’s Lobster Institute, said there is no scientific basis for Sweden’s proposed ban.”
- “The North American side points to a Swedish report that says a ban on American crustaceans ‘would potentially be beneficial in terms of profits and jobs’ for Europe.”
Chicago Tribune: What Did They Know and When did They Know It?
Chicago Tribune writer Nneka McGuire is currently working on a story about seafood consumption with a focus on women and pregnant women. NFI has been happy to serve as a resource for Ms. McGuire providing her on-the-record, recorded interviews and links to independent, published, peer-reviewed science on the current state of seafood and nutrition.
We explained that, independent of NFI, the current state of science overwhelmingly supports and promotes the conclusion that Americans do not eat a sufficient amount of seafood and that the real danger lies in not eating enough… even for pregnant women. We provided her with not only a summary of the findings but direct links to the USDA Dietary Guidelines, the FDA’s Net Effects Report, and the joint study conducted by the World Health Organization and UN FAO.
Ms. McGuire has a library of the latest information at her disposal. In addition, NFI has offered perspective on the many agenda-driven groups that often try to distort scientific consensus in order to promote scare stories about seafood. NFI stands as a continued resource to this reporter and is more than happy to direct her to independent experts, clinicians and research on this topic.
Having seen myriad misreporting on this important topic NFI remains vigilant, if not skeptical, about this forthcoming report for two reasons. After being provided with links to the preeminent, independent, published, peer-reviewed science on seafood consumption the reporter asked NFI for comment, not on those findings, but on two University of Michigan studies– one on seafood and autoimmune disorders and the other on mercury levels off the Hawaiian coast.
This dynamic raises concerns for us because neither of these studies have anything to do with eating fish. To be clear, Ms. McGuire is aware of that incontrovertible fact. To reiterate, neither of the studies she has asked us to comment on involve researching what happens to the human body when fish is eaten. One is an associative review and the other measures mercury in fish. These are not nutrition studies. These do not present conclusions about the effects of fish consumption. There are many, many other conclusive, long term studies that do in fact look at the effects of fish consumption on human health, these do not.
The second phase of our concern comes from the fact that the Chicago Tribune itself has a woefully bad history about reporting on seafood and health. While Ms. McGuire clearly had no role in any of the previous reporting the editorial leadership demonstrated during prior stories was akin to journalistic malpractice.
We stand as a continued resource to this and any other reporter interested in the ground truth science about seafood and nutrition.
Real Reporting on the Future of Seafood
For years an erroneous statistic made the rounds of both causal conversation and main-stream media reporting. It said the world’s oceans would be emptied of fish by the year 2048. The statistic was patently wrong and had even been debunked in published, peer-reviewed literature by its original author. But writers, reporters, editors and producers continued to use it because sound-bite science, even if wrong, is so often an easier sell.
Since 2009 a slow and steady drumbeat has chipped away at this harmfully inaccurate misinformation. Righting earlier reporting NBC proclaimed, “crab cakes and fish sticks won’t be disappearing after all,” while the New York Times wrote, “can we have our fish and eat it too?… the answer may be yes.”
Now, all these years later an accurate, science-based narrative is finally helping the media come full circle. The latest science shows not an empty ocean by 2048 but quite the opposite. National Geographic begins its report this way:
- “After decades of declines, most of the world’s fish populations could recover in just ten years, while fishermen make more money at the same time, scientists reported in a new study published Monday.”
- “By 2050, global fish populations could double if all countries switched to the best management practices.”
The hand wringing and hyperbole associated with empty oceans has made for compelling press but the plain and simple facts are quite different and are finally getting their day.
We suggest reading the National Geographic article, “How Our Favorite Fish Could Recover in a Decade.”