De nominibus piscium

On Tuesday night (21.2), the Danish television channel DR1 news programme TV Avisen ran a story about ‘new EU regulations for fishmongers’ as their ‘feel-good segment’ in the end of the broadcast. The basic gist of the story was that due to new EU regulations, all fish sold in retail now have to be identified by their scientific, i.e. Latin name, as well as the more common name in the local language.

TV Avisen had chosen a ‘human interest’/tongue-in-cheek angle on the story, including an interview with a slightly dyslexic fishmonger who allegedly now “had to learn Latin”, and a selection of customers who were made to try to guess which particular species of fish were called what in Latin. All very cutesy, but on the other hand, the story was decidedly lacking in actual information about the regulations in question.

However, as we know, reality is frequently a little more complicated than how the media conclude it is when they try to understand EU regulations. And of course, the most egregious misunderstandings get the infamous label of ‘Euromyths’. So let’s try to find out what’s actually going on here, and whether we do indeed have a classic Euromyth on our hands. Thanks to a very helpful journalist who wrote a similar story at the newspaper Berlingske (albeit with a significantly more serious and informed angle than TV Avisen) I’ve found out that there are four different pieces of legislation involved here:

  • Council Regulation (EC) No 104/2000 of 17 December 1999 on the common organisation of the markets in fishery and aquaculture products
  • Commission Regulation (EC) No 2065/2001 of 22 October 2001 laying down detailed rules for the application of Council Regulation (EC) No 104/2000 as regards informing consumers about fishery and aquaculture products
  • Council Regulation (EC) No 1224/2009 of 20 November 2009 establishing a Community control system for ensuring compliance with the rules of the common fisheries policy, amending Regulations (EC) No 847/96, etc.
  • Commission Implementing Regulation (EU) No 404/2011 of 8 April 2011 laying down detailed rules for the implementation of Council Regulation (EC) No 1224/2009 establishing a Community control system for ensuring compliance with the rules of the Common Fisheries Policy

This may seem a little overwhelming, but there’s really no need to panic; the majority of these laws deal with controls of fisheries and the like, so we just need to focus on a couple of articles. Let’s look at them one at a time, beginning with the earliest one, Council Regulation (EC) 104/2001, and then work our way forwards. Article 4 of 104/2000 says that:

Article 4
1. Without prejudice to the provisions of Directive 79/112/EEC(12), the products referred to in Article 1(a), (b) and (c) may not be offered for retail sale to the final consumer, irrespective of the marketing method, unless appropriate marking or labelling indicates:
(a) the commercial designation of the species;
(b) the production method (caught at sea or in inland waters or farmed);
(c) the catch area.
These requirements shall not however apply to small quantities of products disposed of directly to consumers by either fishermen or aquaculture producers.
2. For the purposes of paragraph 1(a), the Member States shall draw up and publish a list of the commercial designations accepted in their territory, for at least all the species listed in Annexes I to IV to this Regulation, not later than 1 January 2002. The list shall indicate the scientific name for each species, its name in the official language or languages of the Member State and, where applicable, any other name or names accepted or permitted locally or regionally.

This article basically says that most types of fish (there are a few exceptions) offered for sale to consumers must be labelled with the common name (“commercial designation”), the production method, and the area where the fish was caught. Also, you can’t just call the fish anything you like – it has to be an accepted designation that is officially linked to a particular species.

This first regulation was soon followed by Commission Regulation (EC) 2065/2001, also known in later legislation as the ‘Control Regulation’, which specified in greater detail how the general rules of 104/2000 should be applied. The two relevant articles in this one read:

Article 3
For the purposes of applying Article 4(1)(a) of Regulation (EC) No 104/2000, the commercial designation of a species shall be as established in each Member State in accordance with Article 4(2) of that Regulation. Operators may also indicate the scientific name of the species concerned upon sale to the final consumer.

Article 8
The information required concerning the commercial designation, the production method and the catch area shall be available at each stage of marketing of the species concerned. This information together with the scientific name of the species concerned shall be provided by means of the labelling or packaging of the product, or by means of a commercial document accompanying the goods, including the invoice.

Here we see that the required information that was mentioned in the previous Regulation as well as the scientific name of the species must accompany the product “…at each stage of marketing…”, i.e. at each stage in the link from original producer to the retailer. However, as we see in Art. 3, retailers may but do not yet have to provide the scientific name to consumers.

Some years later, in 2009, the EU issued the very comprehensive (i.e. incredibly long) Council Regulation (EC) No 1224/2009, Art. 58 of which read in part:

Article 58 – Traceability
5.The minimum labelling and information requirements for all lots of fisheries and aquaculture products shall include:
(g) the information to consumers provided for in Article 8 of Regulation (EC) No 2065/2001: the commercial designation, the scientific name, the relevant geographical area and the production method;
(h) whether the fisheries products have been previously frozen or not.
6. Member States shall ensure that the information listed in points (g) and (h) of paragraph 5 is available to the consumer at retail sale stage.

This is where the interesting change happens, because whereas the scientific name was previously an optional piece of information at the retail stage, it is now part of the information that must be “…available to the consumer…”. What it does not say, though, is specifically how that information must be made available. However, Reg. 1224/2009 soon received its own Implementing Regulation (EU) No 404/2011, which cleared up that particular question:

Article 68 – Information to the consumer
1. Member States shall ensure that the information referred to in Article 58(6) of the Control Regulation concerning the commercial designation, the scientific name of the species, the catch area referred to in Article 5 of Regulation (EC) No 2065/2001 and the production method is indicated on the label or appropriate mark of the fisheries and aquaculture products offered for retail sale, including imported products.
2. By derogation from paragraph 1, the scientific name of the species may be provided to the consumers at retail level by means of commercial information such as bill boards or posters.

And here we (finally) arrive the ‘new rule’ behind this story. Most types of fish sold to consumers must now be appropriately labelled and marked with this package of information: Approved commercial and scientific name, catch area and production method. But as we can also see, as far as the scientific name is concerned, a bill board or poster is sufficient to provide this information.

Perhaps (even probably?) you’re wondering at this point why all these rules are even necessary. A fish is a fish, isn’t it? Well, not always – or to be more precise, it’s not always certain that we’re talking about the same types of fish.

These rules are essentially a part of what is called traceability – the principle that a food item should be documented and identifiable at every step in the production process, so that e.g. all parts of a particular lot can be recalled in case it turns out to be contaminated. At the consumer end of things, the point is that retailers can sometimes be a little creative with how they name their products – for instance, different types of fish are sometimes sold as cod (Gadus x.), even though they belong to entirely different orders. And there have even been cases where oilfish (Ruvettus pretiosus), the overconsumption of which can cause certain unpleasant health issues, have been marketed as cod as well. So even though most consumers probably don’t know that many scientific fish names off the top of their heads, at least this way they have the opportunity to be certain of which particular species of fish they’re buying to eat.

But let’s get down to the juicy question at the heart of this story: Do fishmonger actually have to learn Latin? Well, no. As we’ve already seen, the scientific name of a fish is a part of the traceability procedure, which means that the fishmongers already have that information, because it will have been transmitted to them by their wholesale distributors. Further, as we learned from Article 68(2) in Reg. 404/2011, they don’t even have to label the fish individually, but can provide the information “…by means of commercial information such as bill boards or posters.”

So – Euromyth or No Myth? At least as far as TV Avisen’s angle is concerned, I’ll call this one as a Euromyth. Yes, the regulation does exist, and it does say that retailers have to provide the scientific names of their products to consumers. But when they can do that by simply putting up a poster in their shop, claiming that they’ll have to learn Latin to do their job is just a little too far removed from reality. And it’s not even a new Euromyth, since there have been similar stories as far back as 2004 or earlier about fishmongers having to rename their fish in Latin. So better luck next time, TV Avisen.

(It’s really too bad it’s a myth, by the way, because Latin is an awesome language, and I’d wholeheartedly support any initiatives to increase its use, no matter how ridiculously impactical they might be.)

(Also, if you’ve made it this far, you should give yourself a reward, because this is pretty hard-core stuff, even by normal standards of EU law.)

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