• Open Access

Mass Media Influence and the Regulation of Illegal Practices in the Seafood Market



Following media exposure on the issue of seafood mislabeling in Ireland, results of repeated forensic testing of cod product labeling suggest that media attention played an important role in determining significant improvements in the supermarket retail sector, but had no detectable effect on “take-away” food services. Differences in the chains of production and in compliance requirements to European labeling laws may explain the divergent responses of the two sectors. The findings from this study indicate that it may be possible for mass media to occupy an influential role in fisheries and environmental management and policy, provided that (i) primary research findings are correctly reported by popular media and (ii) governmental agencies follow up the short-term reaction to media exposure with appropriate enforcement measures.


Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) has undergone well-known population collapses in many traditional fishing grounds, which are largely attributable to overfishing (Mieszkowska et al. 2009). Although some large, healthy stocks are currently sustainable (Lilly et al. 2013), management concerns continue to exist, due to uncertainties associated with climatic changes and, typically, its intense and widespread exploitation, trade and demand.

In 2010, a genetic study on cod labeling accuracy in the capital of Ireland, Dublin, showed that up to 28% of products tested belonged to other species of fish (Miller & Mariani 2010) and were therefore deemed to be mislabeled under European law (EC 2001). That investigation was one of several studies that, over the past few years, have drawn attention to the widespread phenomenon of seafood mislabeling (e.g., Marko et al. 2004; Logan et al. 2008; Wong & Hanner 2008; Barbuto et al. 2010; Lowenstein et al. 2010; Garcia-Vazquez et al. 2011), providing evidence for the power and usefulness of molecular genetics approaches in monitoring the transparency of seafood market operations.

On the day the paper by Miller & Mariani (2010) was published online in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, University College Dublin (UCD) and the Ecological Society of America (ESA) distributed a joint press release: the implications of the study for consumer deceit made the article particularly attractive to the mass media. All nine of Ireland's national daily newspapers, two national radio programs and one national TV news broadcast featured the article's findings, often as a “front-page” item, for an estimated total outreach of nearly three million Irish citizens (Table 1). Essentially, the country's whole adult population had the potential of becoming aware of the study's findings within the span of a few days. Subsequently, the study was also covered in a number of high-profile daily broadsheets abroad, including UK's The Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2010/apr/23/fish-fishing?INTCMP=SRCH) and USA's The New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/27/science/earth/27fish.html?_r=0). Moreover, a comparative DNA testing of cod products by the authors of the study became subject of a prime-time TV documentary, broadcast in both Ireland and the United Kingdom (http://www.channel4.com/programmes/dispatches/episode-guide/series-58/episode-5; Miller et al. 2012), which mentioned a specific supermarket chain as responsible for some degree of product mislabeling, prompting the said company to release a formal apology to consumers. A few months after the publication of Miller & Mariani (2010), in which recommendations were made to improve labeling policy enforcement and to apply DNA-based seafood identification techniques, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) engaged in another seafood genetic testing survey, to verify the accuracy of our findings. The results were released the following year (FSAI 2011), and largely confirmed the patterns unveiled in Miller & Mariani (2010).

Table 1. Figures of average daily audience in 2010 for the Irish media outlets that covered Miller and Mariani's (2010) paper on cod mislabelling, the day after it was published online (23/04/2010).
Media sourcerecorded audience in 2010
Irish Independent508,000
Irish Daily Star460,000
Evening Herald317,000
Irish Sun289,000
Belfast Telegraph247,000
Irish Examiner238,000
Irish Daily Mail131,000
Metro Herald65,000
RTE radio 1 Morning Ireland467,000
RTE radio 1 Drivetime256,000

Compliance to regulations in the use of natural resources depends upon many intertwined variables (Keane et al. 2008). Given the substantial media resonance of the study and its rapid impact on civil society and governmental agencies, we set out to test whether this exposure would have an effect on the transparency of subsequent Irish seafood market operations. Interviews and focus groups suggest that retailers and consumers are both sensitive to mass media outputs (Miller & Mariani 2012); therefore, we hypothesized that as a result of “bad publicity,” the retail sector would improve control over its production chain and reduce, or eradicate, the extent of product mislabeling.


To test our hypothesis, we sampled fresh, smoked, and battered seafood products labeled as cod, in supermarkets and fast-food “take-away” shops, respectively, targeting the same Dublin businesses previously surveyed by Miller & Mariani (2010), and using exactly the same approach, collecting specimens twice in each place, over a two-week span. Controlling for potential seasonal influences in product availability, sampling operations took place in the autumn of 2011, exactly 2 years after the previous survey. We excluded frozen fillets from the analysis, because previously they were rarely found to be mislabeled (Miller & Mariani 2010). In total, 42 samples from supermarkets and 24 battered samples from take-away shops were obtained. In 2009, packaged cod products were purchased in 15 supermarkets; however, in 2011, two out of these 15 supermarkets either did not have cod on sale on the day of sampling, or had since closed their business and therefore could not be resampled. All samples were DNA-barcoded using the methodology illustrated in Miller & Mariani (2010).


Interestingly, no supermarkets were found to substitute cod products with other fish species, registering a starkly significant drop since our previous investigation (0% in 2011 vs. 34.8% in 2009, χ2 = 16.7, d.f. = 1, p < 0.001). The rate of mislabeling in take-away shops, on the other hand, remained virtually unchanged, with 10 out of 24 products sold as cod being identified as different species (Table 2), a similar percentage (41.7%) to our previous survey (50%; χ2 = 0.34, d.f. = 1, p = 0.56).

Table 2. Details of the genetic identification results for “fish & chips” take-away shops in 2011. Mislabelled samples are in boldface. The final column reports the sequence match from the Barcode of Life Datasystem (http://www.boldsystems.org/).
No.CodeSold AsIdentified AsCommon NameBOLD match (% )
111-24chip1aFresh Fillet CodGadus morhuaAtlantic Cod100
211-24chip1bSmoked CodPollachius virensSaithe100
311-24chip2aFresh Fillet CodGadus morhuaAtlantic Cod100
411-24chip2bSmoked CodPollachius virensSaithe100
511-1chip1aFresh Fillet CodGadus morhuaAtlantic Cod100
611-14chip1aFresh Fillet CodGadus morhuaAtlantic Cod100
711-14chip2aFresh Fillet CodGadus morhuaAtlantic Cod100
811-14chip2bSmoked CodPollachius virensSaithe100
911-2chip1aFresh Fillet CodGadus morhuaAtlantic Cod100
1011-2chip1bSmoked CodPollachius virensSaithe100
1111-15chip1aFresh Fillet CodGadus morhuaAtlantic Cod100
1211-15chip2aSmoked CodGadus morhuaAtlantic Cod100
1311-7chip1aFresh Fillet CodGadus morhuaAtlantic Cod99
1411-7chip1bSmoked CodPollachius virensSaithe99
1511-7chip2aSmoked CodPollachius virensSaithe100
1611-4chip1aFresh Fillet CodMelanogrammus aeglefinusHaddock100
1711-4chip2aSmoked CodGadus morhuaAtlantic Cod99.8
1811-SCDchip1aSmoked CodGadus morhuaAtlantic Cod100
1911-SCDchip2aSmoked CodPollachius virensSaithe100
2011-3chip1aFresh Fillet CodGadus morhuaAtlantic Cod100
2111-3chip1bSmoked CodPollachius virensSaithe100
2211-3chip2aFresh Fillet CodGadus morhuaAtlantic Cod100
2311-3chip2bSmoked CodPollachius virensSaithe Gadus morhua100
2411-13chip1aFresh Fillet CodGadus morhuaAtlantic Cod100


The results from our repeated product sampling and analysis seem to suggest that the powerful media resonance generated by our study in 2010 has played some role in affecting market operations in the supermarket sector, while producing no effect on the take-away business. It should, of course, be noted that many factors may have been at play during the two-year span between the first and the second sampling; moreover, given the uniqueness of the situation, it is impossible to “replicate” the experiment and control for potentially interacting drivers. Nevertheless, it is possible to identify all significant events along a “time line” (Figure 1), and examine their potential role in influencing the observed changes in mislabeling patterns.

Figure 1.

Graphical time line of events relevant to the present study. The blue “targets” represent data collection events and the red ones denote data release events. Yellow boxes highlight events directly driven by us. The photo inserted at the centre-top collates a selection of newspaper titles that featured the findings of Miller and Mariani (2010); these include: The Irish Independent, 23/04/2010, The Irish Daily Mirror, 23/04/2010, The Irish Sun, 23/04/2010, The Irish Daily Mail, 23/04/2010, Metro, 23/04/2010, The Irish Daily Star, 23/04/2010, and The Irish Times, 24/05/2010.

First, a new EU legislation was introduced in between the two sampling periods (EC 2009), aimed to improve compliance with the rules of the EU Common Fisheries Policy, and “modernize” the EU's approach to fisheries control. Specifically, the issue of traceability was addressed by inviting EU member states to invest in projects designed to ensure that fisheries products can be traced back and checked throughout the supply chain. However, the new regulation introduced no requirements for the implementation of monitoring programs using genetic techniques for seafood identification, and no changes to enforcement and penalties. Thus, the seafood market is still expected to comply with the already adequate and specific product traceability policies that have been in place for at least a decade (EC 2001). The issues that likely allowed for the problem of seafood mislabeling to persist within the Irish marketplace were chiefly associated with enforcement or lack thereof.

Upon the distribution of the press release for the Miller & Mariani (2010) paper, the previously described media coverage ensued (Figure 1). Following these events, in June of 2010, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) immediately began sampling and genetically testing products sold as “cod” in Ireland, but the results of this survey were not released until March of 2011 (FSAI 2011). Consistent with Miller & Mariani (2010), the FSAI detected mislabeling in 19% of the products tested. Although this second set of findings did not generate vast media resonance, it could have played a role in influencing the market. However, the FSAI survey was itself prompted by the clamor caused by the 2010 media coverage, which uncovered governmental inefficiencies. Furthermore, although the FSAI (2011) sampling was not directly comparable with Miller & Mariani (2010), a closer look at the results from the 21 supermarket samples included, shows that only three were mislabeled (14.3%). Although the difference, due to the small sample size, is not statistically significant compared to the 34.8% in Miller & Mariani (2012), it might indicate that supermarkets had already at that stage begun to tighten control on their practices.

Just before the release of the FSAI report, Miller and Mariani contributed to the prime-time UK documentary Fish Unwrapped, which focused primarily on cod mislabeling in the United Kingdom (Miller et al. 2012), but was also screened in the Republic of Ireland. While it is difficult to assess the influence of this documentary on the Irish market, it is without question that the researchers were asked to be involved directly as a result of the media attention generated by their previous investigation; furthermore, a TV documentary could itself be seen as a form of media resonance.

In August of 2012, the FSAI launched a Food Fraud Task Force to investigate and monitor suspicious labeling activity within the Irish food industry (FSAI 2012), and later in 2012, turning their attention to beef, the newly established task force genetically detected and reported horse meat found in a variety of beef products obtained from Irish retailers. This discovery triggered an EU-wide investigation that uncovered a remarkable food scandal that led to the recall of beef products on an unprecedented scale and gained extensive global media coverage (FSAI 2013). These events all occurred after our second genetic survey (Figure 1), and therefore could not have influenced mislabeling rate as documented here.

After examining all the other potentially contributing factors, we feel that the most parsimonious explanation for such a sudden change in seafood mislabeling rates in Irish supermarkets is that media resonance played a central role in affecting industry operation. Yet, we are left with the striking result that over the same time span, mislabeling rate in take-away shops has remained unchanged.

Pinpointing the main drivers of rule-breaking behavior in human societies is particularly challenging (Keane et al. 2008). Studies of fishery exploitation show that compliance to legislation by fishers mostly depends on enforcement deterrent (Furlong 1991) and/or collective moral judgment (Gezelius 2004). The nature of the modern seafood industry, with its complex global network of import/export connections and multistep production chains, is arguably more difficult to resolve than single fisheries. However, a rapid media-prompted change in compliance under a relatively stable regime of enforcement (as described here) suggests that collective moral judgment plays a key role in explaining the divergent outcomes detected in the two types of food purveyors.

First, the different types of custom between the two retail sectors may have affected the observed discrepancy. Supermarket chains have engaged in a fierce competition battle for the control of the food retail sector over the past three decades (Revoredo-Giha & Renwick 2012), and are therefore more likely than take-away shops to be concerned by the damaging effects of negative publicity. Consumers make regular shopping trips, as opposed to more sporadic visits to take-away vendors for small purchases, and may be more sensitive to price and value, particularly in more recent years, under challenging financial regimes (Piercy et al. 2010; Miller & Branscum 2012). Thus, in choosing which supermarket to spend their weekly food budget at, a consumer may not hesitate to turn to a competing retailer upon realization that they are not getting the correct value product for the money spent. Some supermarket clients may also pay attention to the environmental consequences of their purchasing habits (Strong 1996; Cummins 2004); hence, they might react with dismay to the news that their retailer of choice may be showing disregard to the environment for financial gain. This would also likely determine the shift to a competitor.

In order to avoid such competitive disadvantage, it is vital for such businesses to swiftly identify—and address—the points along the production chain that are operating inefficiently and/or fraudulently. Failure to react appropriately would undermine any efforts made in recent years, to advertise the quality, the convenience, and the environmental friendliness of their products (Cummins 2004) with the aim of attracting and maintaining a faithful custom.

Small, independent, take-away shops, on the other hand, operate very differently. They rely on less regular visits from customers who purchase a meal for convenience, irrespective of the reliability of the product on provision (Miller & Mariani 2012). Take-away visitors in metropolitan areas likely offer their custom with a general lack of understanding of the species of fish they will consume (http://www.salford.ac.uk/environment-life-sciences/about/feature-articles/hake-batters-cod-in-science-chippy-taste-test), without as systematic of an approach as used when shopping for groceries (Buckley et al. 2005), and may make unplanned purchases while involved in other social activities. This leaves shop managers without a strong incentive to review their strategies and improve their services.

Another key reason quite possibly at the root of the observed differences is the fact that supermarket chains have much stronger control over their product provision than take-away shops. Larger and more influential in size, supermarkets are generally in a dominant position of financial power over their suppliers (Burch & Lawrence 2005), and each one of their packaged retail goods in Europe is accompanied with an “EU approval number” (EC 2004), which allows rapid identification of the processing factory that handled the product prior to its delivery to the store's shelves (Miller et al. 2012). Thus, even when supermarkets are not necessarily responsible for the mislabeling, they can swiftly approach the suppliers that provided wrongly labeled products and act accordingly. This empowers supermarket chains with a potential for rapid quality control and a level of responsiveness that is impracticable for small take-away businesses, which may hold less influence on their suppliers (Miller & Mariani 2012), and in addition, are not required to purvey their products with a requirement of EU labels.

An important indication arising from this short-term study is that media coverage may have a beneficial effect on the seafood retail sector, by placing pressure on the large market players to eradicate inefficient and illegal practices. Specifically designed questionnaires will represent the necessary tools to resolve the relative importance of the motives that affect perception and decision-making in consumers, retailers, and suppliers, on matters of seafood labeling and traceability. In any case, given the complicated negotiations and planning generally required for the implementation of policy changes, mass media coverage may become an increasingly powerful and rapid driver of change in seafood industry operations.

While this mechanism could be effectively harnessed by conservation scientists and civil society, any resulting awareness campaign must be based on solid, reliable data, and findings must be popularized in an accurate and balanced way. Scientific findings may often be grossly misinterpreted, misreported, or overly sensationalized by the media, especially when attempting to translate complex biological dynamics into a format palatable to lay audiences, as it was recently the case with the dreadfully misleading reports on population size estimates of North Sea cod (http://fullfact.org/articles/cod_north_sea_number-28211, but see also Muter et al. 2012 for an example of media reports on sharks). In the case of seafood mislabeling, the underpinning science is relatively simple and hence easy to translate to lay audiences; but in most instances, the results from biological and environmental research are conceptually complex and have subtler relevance to society. For this reason, in order to avoid undesirable and damaging consequences to society and the environment, it is hoped that scientists, communication officers, and reporters continue to consolidate their collaborative links, with the common goal to provide fresh, unambiguous, unadulterated information to the public.


Funds were provided by the Earth and Natural Sciences (ENS) Doctoral Studies Programme, with contributions from the Higher Education Authority (HEA), PRTLI-5, and the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF). We thank the members of the JCEE group at Salford University, two anonymous reviewers, and the subject editor, for constructive criticism and discussions. Dominic Martella kindly provided Irish mass-media audience figures for 2010.