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Mexican canned tuna contains dolphin meat, DNA tests show

A study by UNAM experts discovered evidence of canned tuna produced in Mexico containing dolphin meat

Mexican canned tuna contains dolphin meat, DNA tests show
UNAM experts used PCR tests to confirm the presence of dolphin meat in Mexican canned tuna - Photo: File photo/EL UNIVERSAL
English 27/08/2020 16:18 Newsroom Mexico City Actualizada 16:18
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After it was revealed experts from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) detected dolphin meat in canned tuna of Mexican brands, one of the leaders of the investigation explained the objectives of the research and the strategy that led the team to obtain those results.

Doctor José Francisco Montiel Sosa shared in an interview with EL UNIVERSAL that the Discovery took place through a dissertation work in 2018 when one of the students of Food Engineering at the School of Higher Studies Cuautitlán got interested in the topic after doing her community service at the Federal Commission for the Protection Against Sanitary Risks (COFEPRIS).

Karla Vanessa Hernández Herbert witnessed how Mexico was pointed out for not labeling canned tuna with the “Dolphin Safe” label, a denomination that was created on the 1990s in the U.S. to prevent competition from Latin American tuna marketers since our country is the sixth producer of canned tuna in the world.

“That label offered a wrong idea to consumers, who think ‘Dolphin Safe’ means the tuna can is free from dolphin meat,” but the real objective was to undermine dismiss the quality of Mexican brands by asserting their products were made with dolphin meat, said Hernández Herbert.

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“Based on that doubt, Karla Vanessa proposed us to evaluate commercial tuna in order to see if there was any presence of dolphin meat,” said the UNAM professor. “In 2018, we made the study thinking we would not find any positive sample but we actually did: From 15 national commercial cans bought by Karla, dolphin DNA was detected in three of them.”

The finding was possible through the PCR method: “it’s a highly potent technique that allows us to detect genetic material even though it is present in small proportions and it was the one we used at the laboratory,” to analyze the water and oil in which tuna is conserved, said the UNAM academic.

“We performed [the test] and obtained positive results in three out of 15 [canned tuna]” For the obtention of PCR tests, the expert explained that it is necessary to get a part of the dolphin’s physiological composition.

“At FES Cuautitlán, a colleague was working with dolphin liver to study this species’ viral diseases. Hence he gave us a bit of the tissue from which we extracted the DNA to detect the presence of dolphin meat in the product.”

Montiel Sosa said that in order for the PCR test to work, there must be a design of small DNA fragments through a computing system which are also known as primers and which are specific to detect the kind of DNA that is being sought.

Regarding the reason why they did not publish the name of the brands that presented dolphin meat, the scientist said that when they work with commercial brands at the laboratory, their identity cannot be exposed by any means. “We don’t pretend to start a prosecution against any brands, it is only generalized research; we are very careful with confidentiality.”

Hernández Herbert was not looking to affect Mexico's tuna market, said her tutor, so this year, they have planned to repeat the study in collaboration with other engineering students that will consider quantitative aspects for the 2018 investigation was exclusively focused on knowing whether there was or not any presence of dolphin meat and now they are interested in showing the DNA percentage “assuming it is positive once again,” he asserted.

Recommended: Mexican tuna industry will have to modify fishing methods

Montiel Sosa invited those interested in knowing more about the matter to read the document on the UNAM’s official library system (TESIUNAM).

A 10-year-long dispute on “Dolphin Safe” tuna labeling
In 2019, the United States won a legal battle over “dolphin safe” tuna labeling when the World Trade Organization’s appeals judges dismissed Mexico’s argument that the U.S. labeling rules violated WTO rules.

More than 10 years after the dispute first came to the WTO in October 2008, the WTO ruling ended Mexico’s claim that U.S. labeling rules unfairly penalized its fishing industry.

Mexico said it had cut dolphin deaths to minimal levels but that it was being discriminated against by U.S. demands for paperwork and sometimes government observers. Tuna catches from other regions did not face the same stringent tests, it said.

The new ruling implies that if tuna exporters cannot label their products as “dolphin safe,” they won’t be able to sell them in supermarket chains.

The dispute centered on U.S. refusal to grant a “dolphin safe” label to tuna products caught by chasing and encircling dolphins with a purse seine net in order to catch the tuna swimming beneath them. Mexico’s tuna fleet in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean used such methods almost exclusively.

“Dolphin-safe tuna” could only be used to describe tuna captured in nets where there was no death or serious injury of dolphins. But the WTO found that “setting on” dolphins with a purse seine net was likely to kill or injure them, even if there was no observable evidence of such deaths and injuries.

Recommended: Mexico’s tuna market shows growth despite U.S. “dolphin safe” standard

According to the Mexican government, the national fleet’s tuna fishing methods are perfectly in line with international environmental standards to protect dolphins and other sea creatures.

The Foreign Trade sub-secretary claimed that the Mexican fleet protected dolphins more than any other region in the world, warning that they would keep a close eye on the U.S. government's adherence to their own strict regulations.

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