Shark DNA found in some pet food products sold in Singapore: Yale-NUS study

SINGAPORE — Yale-NUS College researchers have detected traces of shark meat in a third of pet food samples collected in Singapore, including those by notable brands Whiskas and Purina, in what is believed to be the first study of its kind done here.

Researchers Benjamin J Wainwright and Ian French studied 45 different pet food products from 16 brands sold in Singapore. None had listed sharks as an ingredient, with most brands using generic terms such as “fish”, “ocean fish”, “white bait” or “white fish”.

Mr French, a graduating student majoring in environmental studies at Yale-NUS College, said: “Under current regulations, vague labels such as ‘white fish’, ‘ocean fish’ or ‘white bait’ in pet food are allowed. These labels enable companies to sell mixtures of fish without specifying, or even possibly knowing, their corresponding species identities.”

He added: “The majority of pet owners are likely lovers of nature, and we think most would be alarmed to discover that they could be unknowingly contributing to the overfishing of shark populations.”

He and Assistant Professor Wainwright, who has worked on numerous marine conservation programs in the tropics, looked at 144 samples.

They used a technique called “DNA barcoding” by matching DNA extracted from the pet food samples against global databases to help identify the animal species contained in them.

Similar to how barcode labels help to identify different products, “DNA barcoding” uses a short, signature genetic region to identify a species of animal.

The research paper, published in peer-reviewed research journal Frontiers in Marine Science on March 4, stated that the most commonly identified species in the samples were the blue shark, silky shark and whitetip reef shark.

Both the silky shark and the whitetip reef shark are listed as “vulnerable” in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List and the blue shark is listed as “near threatened”.

The silky shark is also listed in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) Appendix II, meaning that its trade must be controlled to avoid overconsumption because it would threaten survival of the species.

The paper suggested that after high-value fins from sharks have been removed, the pet food industry may have processed shark carcasses instead of wasting it.

However, the researchers are “skeptical that this is the sole reason sharks end up in pet food”.

Although Mr French noted that the full scale of seafood mislabeling in Singapore is difficult to estimate, he finds it “striking that nearly one-third of the samples contained shark DNA”.

“Moreover, this is at least the fourth study in the past four years to expose mislabeling practices locally,” he added.

A study last year by Yale-NUS College found that 26 per cent of all seafood samples taken from supermarkets here are mislabeled and a study in 2018 co-authored by researchers from the National University of Singapore (NUS) identified endangered sharks sold under the overarching label of “ends”.

Although there is no clear scientific evidence for the health impact on pets consuming shark meat, Mr French noted that previous research has shown that there are high levels of mercury in sharks, which may lead to mercury poisoning among cats and dogs.

WHAT PET FOOD COMPANIES SAY

Pet food companies contacted by TODAY insisted that their products do not contain shark meat.

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