x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Adieu à l'hammour, hello expensive ice

Measures to protect consumers need to be extended following revelations that fish sold in some supermarkets isn't what it's made out to be.

Something fishy is going on down at the supermarket. That hammour you bought at a bargain price may not be hammour at all. Putting aside the argument that it would be a good thing to protect depleting stocks of the nation's favourite fish, the fact is that consumers are being cheated if they are buying catfish instead of hammour.

But it gets worse. The duplicity is compounded because some vendors are injecting their stock with a chemical that absorbs water and gives it more bulk. Another practice is to sell frozen fish with a heavy ice glaze, so the customer ends up paying a high price for frozen water.

The glaze serves a purpose - it protects the fish from deterioration - but it is limited in the US to a maximum of 10 per cent of the weight of the product. The reason, simply, is so consumers get more bang for their buck. In the UAE, however, there is no legal limit and some vendors say that up to 40 per cent of defrosted seafood literally goes down the drain.

As reported in The National yesterday, Dubai shopper Mohammed Ali describes the practice of padding-out seafood as "daylight robbery". Yet no one will be arrested for this because it's not illegal. Nor is it illegal to "forget" to tell a customer that fish labelled hammour is actually pangasius, a species of freshwater catfish that is farmed in Vietnam.

Fishmongers are blaming pressure from their biggest commercial buyers, mainly hotels and restaurants, who are not prepared to pay for the real thing. Whatever the reason, it is simply unacceptable that customers aren't getting what's on the label.

The broader issue here is protecting consumers' interests when products are not as claimed or otherwise not fit for purpose. Various levels of government have already made progress on the issue, with consumer protection and food control authorities operating in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and the establishment three years ago of The Emirates Authority for Standardisation and Metrology to formulate national standards on all sorts of industrial and commercial products.

What is lacking, and what is clearly needed, is a coordinated approach and an overarching consumer watchdog that ensures customers have quick recourse to remedy when they fall victim to a scam.