Something fishy in the supply chain

July 18th marks National Caviar Day – one of a number of ‘awareness’ days dedicated to the knowledge and appreciation of a wide range of food and drink products[1].

Although not strictly a ‘brand’ in its own right, caviar (like Champagne or Parmigiano-Reggiano[2]) is a type of foodstuff for which the authorized use of the name is restricted to product that meets certain conditions (e.g. a product that has a protected geographical status). In the case of caviar, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization states that the term can only be used to refer to salt-cured fish roe from certain members of a particular order of fish (among them are sturgeon and paddlefish)[3], with the specific variety of caviar (e.g. Beluga, Sterlet, Ossetra or Sevruga) being dependent on the exact type of fish from which the eggs are sourced. In addition, all (legitimate) caviar must be sold with a universal code providing information on its origin. This policy is intended to maintain a standard of quality control, but does mean that caviar is subject to many of the same sorts of supply-chain issues and infringements as are relevant to other, branded goods.

The trade in counterfeit food products (generally) is certainly well established. A 2013 study suggested that fake food products accounted for as much as 15% of all illegal goods seized in six leading global markets[4], with the total global market for counterfeit foods at this time estimated to have a value of $49 billion (£37 billion)[5].

The existence of a trade in non-genuine caviar is not as far-fetched as it may seem; indeed, the high price point of legitimate caviar products (up to $10,000 (£7,500) per kg for the most expensive Beluga caviar) has the potential to make it a tempting target for counterfeiters. In fact, a 2015 study by the German Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research and the WWF Austria, looking at samples of caviar being offered for sale from Bulgaria and Romania, found that only 37% was correctly labeled, with the remainder consisting of mislabeled (e.g. the wrong species) or counterfeit product[6]. There have also been numerous news reports of the ‘on-the-ground’ interception of counterfeit caviar in transit. A February 2015 story reported the seizure of “dubious Chinese ‘caviar’ in boxes marked ‘Aquitaine caviar’”, as part of an Interpol operation named ‘Opson 4’, which resulted in the confiscation of 2,500 tons of fake and sub-standard food, and more than 275,000 liters of fake or diluted alcohol[7]. An October 2015 story reported the discovery of a further $138,000-worth (£105,000) of counterfeit caviar stuffed into a coffin in a makeshift hearse in Russia[8].

Given the volume of commerce that now takes place online (estimated in a 2013 report as having been growing at a rate of 20% or more per year[9]), it is no surprise that we see a significant trade in caviar taking place on the Internet, covering many of the familiar e-commerce channels (marketplace websites, auction sites, standalone e-commerce sites, etc). A simple search for the keyword ‘caviar’ on just two well-known Chinese-based marketplaces, for example, yields over 10,000 listings. Overall, it would be surprising if the proportion of counterfeit product among these total sales were smaller than is observed in the ‘real world’, and it is certainly also the case that several hundred of the identified listings are offering the sale of packaging materials for caviar, which may be a key element of the production process for counterfeit products.

For fake caviar, as for any counterfeit item, we may expect a significant differential in quality compared with the legitimate product. An example of this issue, discussed in an online blog posting[10], considers the case of a type of fake ‘caviar’ on sale in a supermarket for a price of around $10 (£7) (highlighting the fact that price-point can be a key indicator of a counterfeit product). The posting states that the ‘caviar’ was “extremely salty”, “actually drips artificial coloring substances” and “might damage your health”. This last point is particularly relevant; with any product intended for consumption, a compromise in the supply chain of legitimate goods can have significant health implications. A 2006 article, for example, reports the confiscation in Moscow of around 300kg of counterfeit black caviar, which was found to have an “unusual smell” and be contaminated by the intestinal bug E. Coli[11].

These issues highlight the importance of brand protection for any brand owner or individual associated with the supply or trade of legitimate products that are required to meet certain standards. In the case of food products such as caviar, an online brand-protection solution would normally need to include elements of (at least): monitoring for offers of sale (including analysis of listings and/or commissioning test purchases to identify non-legitimate products); enforcement against infringing listings or websites; and online investigations to identify links between key players in the supply chain.





[4] Datamonitor, Anti-Counterfeiting Strategies for FMCG Companies, 2013









David Barnett is Head of Analysis and Consultancy in the NetNames Brand Protection team.

His forthcoming book, ‘Brand Protection in the Online World’, will be published in December and will shortly be available to pre-order via the publisher’s website: