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The common sense of seafood labeling

The story of German discounters misleading consumers in Ireland won't have a happy ending.

Misleading consumers is bad, right? We all know that with today's informed shoppers, mislabeling can explode in your face very fast, so it's surprising that companies still refuse to take it seriously.

When I did research for my recent story on German discounters Aldi and Lidl mislabeling fish and seafood products at their Irish stores, I was met by some with a lack of understanding why the issue was even worth writing about.

Both Lidl and Aldi rejected claims they don't comply with official regulations -- I get that. But the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) and Ireland's seafood development agency Bord Iascaigh Mhara (BIM) were also oddly evasive in sharing information on the issue, with the latter declining to comment altogether.

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It took Niall Murray, who works for Irish fishmonger Nicholas Lynch (Nick's Fish), almost two years of crusading before he saw any real progress on the part of the authorities.

In those two years, he sent countless e-mails to FSAI, took just as many pictures at Irish stores, and collected evidence of hundreds of incidences where the discounters simply got it wrong.

Ahead of Christmas, things finally got moving, as other industry members picked up on the issues. As a result, FSAI is now demanding Aldi and Lidl label their chilled, defrosted fish as such.

Whether the "enforcement" is really going to go through remains to be seen, Murray told me this week.

While mislabeling previously frozen fish is bad enough, the biggest issue I have is the use of the Irish flag on packs of fish that clearly originated from somewhere else.

Wishy-washy EU regulation makes it possible for retailers to keep promoting these products as "Produced in Ireland" if they're processed or packed in Ireland -- even if it's sea bass from Turkey, or hake from Namibia.

Yes, it's official regulation, but what about common sense? Everyone in their right mind knows consumers don't look beyond the front of the pack.

If it says "Produced in Ireland" in bold letters on the pack with the Irish flag next to it, sitting in a chilled freezer which also has the flag plastered all over it...who is going to believe it's not an Irish product, pulled in from the local waters?

And who is going to turn over that pack and read the small print on the back, which defines the actual origin of the fish, or the catching area?

Not many, that much I can promise you.

I do understand that FSAI can only enforce regulations and nothing more.

But once this story really blows up -- and it will, as Irish mainstream media is jumping on the bandwagon right now -- this could be hugely damaging for the country's seafood category.

It will certainly have an impact on sales at Aldi and Lidl, as well as some other retail chains such as Dunnes Stores and Tesco, which according to Murray's research, are also stretching the boundaries of official regulation.

Sadly enough, it probably will have wider implications on Irish seafood consumption in general. Consumers will learn to mistrust retailers, producers and suppliers -- and might just opt for another animal protein as a result.

Comments? Email me at elisabeth.fischer@intrafish.com

Twitter: EF_IntraFish

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