It was one of the first warm mornings of early spring. Inspectors gathered in a Żabbar industrial park in preparation for a raid. They were about to uncover suspicious seafood stowed away in a secret room of a supplier’s warehouse.
“This discovery of illegal fish catches was destined for Maltese buyers and raises concerns about health and safety from a consumer perspective,” a source close to the investigation told The Sunday Times of Malta after the raid.
“We are still investigating and expect to uncover more in the coming days and weeks.”
Fishing in Malta has been put under the spotlight in recent months after the industry was rocked by revelations that Maltese tuna ranchers were smuggling illegally caught fish into southern Spain. The case, which allegedly involved a senior Maltese official, has raised serious concerns about enforcement in the sector.
A Facebook post catches the eye
However, unlike the international tuna racket, which is now caught up in the courts of Madrid and Valencia, the fish – all blue fin tuna – traced to the Ta’ Maġġi industrial estate last week, was not destined for the tapas bars of Spain. Instead, Maltese authorities believe it was due to be served up in local seafood eateries.
Sources said it was a Buġibba restaurant’s Facebook post boasting of “fresh tuna” that first alerted the authorities to the possibility that illegally caught or mislabelled fish was on the menu.
We found the fish behind a partition near the cold store
“This post caught the eye of some people in the sector who asked how this person came to have this fresh tuna,” a source said.
An inspection at the restaurant turned up a consignment of fish that lacked the necessary paperwork to be deemed traceable.
“This means that not only can we, as the competent authorities, not tell where the fish came from, but it makes it more difficult to say if it was stored and transported properly, or if it was tinkered with, and therefore what risks it poses to consumer health,” one source said.
A catering middleman?
Liking the investigation to a drugs bust, health inspectors said subsequent visits to other restaurants had led them to the identity of a Maltese middleman who connects caterers with local fishermen.
“This is like when you catch a youth with a small bag of marijuana, you can either make a show out of him or you can try and get to his dealer and stop the trafficking. That is what we were able to do in this case,” a source said.
In their joint operation, three State authorities – the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture, the Directorate of Veterinary Regulations and the Directorate of Environmental Health – traced the fish from the open-air dining tables of the tourist hotspot to the rusty gate of a wholesaler’s Żabbar warehouse.
An initial inspection at this site had actually turned up dry and it seemed, for a moment, that the rogue dealer would get off the hook.
But in a room concealed behind a ‘fake wall’ at the far end of the building, inspectors then discovered boxes stuffed full of tuna, about 1,200 kilograms of it.
“We found the fish behind a partition near the cold store, which meant it was cold but not properly stored,” a source said.
Representing the supplier, criminal defence lawyer Franco Debono has insisted that his client acquired the fish legally and will be providing the authorities with the receipts and documentation to prove his innocence.
The dealer also insists he had been waiting for clearance from the department for the consignment to be destroyed.
Sources in the Fisheries Department say the facts of the case will be established when the dealer is charged in court in the coming days.
Meanwhile, more discoveries of illegal fish can be expected in the coming months, according to the sources, as the authorities cast a net to try and land more of those involved in this racket.
“The sector has come under a lot of scrutiny and there are efforts being made now to try and address the abuse,” another source said.
Quarter of Maltese white fish found to be ‘fraudulent’
Figures on food fraud in Malta’s seafood industry are hard to come by. But one study by the European Commission does shed some light on the practice. The 2015 EU-wide report had looked into the prevalence of white fish being mislabelled on the European market.
More than a quarter of the white fish tested in Malta was found to have actually been something else – the highest in Europe.
Confronted with the findings, industry sources last week were quick to point out that the local leg of the study was based on a limited sample of just 30 products so it could not be considered statistically sound. It was also unclear how much of the fish was local or imported produce.
That said, they conceded that the practice of mislabelling fish in Malta “certainly exists” and encouraged consumers to be diligent.
The main risk, they added – other than getting ripped off – was the possibility of contracting food poisoning from fish that had not been stored properly.
Fish poisoning: 22 cases in 10 years
In a medical paper on the subject of fish-related food poisoning, consultant physician Martin Balzan reported on a minor outbreak of cases to hit Malta back in the early 1990s.
The paper tells the tale of a family of five who had contracted what is known as scombroid fish poisoning from a meal of fried lampuki (dolphin fish) in Żejtun.
Within just 30 minutes of finishing the meal, all members of the family developed strong allergic reactions to the fish, with one even suffering from minor breathing difficulties.
Scombroid fish poisoning, Dr Balzan writes, is caused by the ingestion of fish with a high histamine content, as a result of a bacteria that forms on the fish’s scales when the product is not refrigerated properly.
Asked about the prevalence of fish poisoning cases in Malta, the health authorities said that while cases were “sporadic” they did exist.
Figures supplied by the Health Department show that in the past 10 years, 22 cases of this sort of fish poisoning have been recorded on the island. The bulk, 18 cases, were linked to the consumption of tuna, two were linked to lampuki, one to imported salmon and one more to awrat (sea bream).
How fish fraud happens
This is not the first time that Maltese authorities have come across questionable fish being served up to consumers in the local market.
A former inspector who spoke to this newspaper on condition of anonymity explained how every so often the authorities would catch sellers passing off “copycat fish” to trick buyers.
“When we inspected fish shops and even restaurants, what we would sometimes find is certain fish being intentionally mislabelled and passed on to unwitting buyers who can’t tell the difference. This is a practice where ‘inferior’ fish is presented as another more sought-after species – obviously with sellers pocketing the substantial difference in price,” he said.
In some instances, restaurants and fishmongers would sell yellow fin tuna as the far-pricier blue fin species.
“When you see the meat of these two types of fish, they are almost identical. The difference comes in the quality when you cook it and serve it – and of course the cost price, which is very different,” the former inspector said.
He explained how authorities had in the past sent dubious fish overseas for DNA testing to be certain that the species were indeed what the sellers claimed they were.
Other instances of food fraud included fish mongers passing off shark meat as mazzola (dogfish) and even as swordfish in some cases.
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