Fish fingers sold in most UK supermarkets use whitefish caught by Russian ships, despite many chains pledging to boycott Russian products.
While supermarkets have taken steps to show solidarity with Ukraine, rebranding their kipkievs as kyivs and removing Russian vodka from the shelves, they have continued to buy fish.
Major brands such as Birds Eye and Young’s, as well as most major supermarkets, including Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Morrisons and Asda, still use Russian-caught fish.
When approached for comment, many turned to the British Retail Consortium (BRC), which said the UK relied heavily on Russia for whitefish and that “complex supply chains” meant it was “difficult to find other sources”.
Of the major supermarkets, only Marks & Spencer and Waitrose said they had stopped using Russian-caught fish in their own products, although Waitrose still stocks brands that use it. Tesco and Asda no longer buy directly from Russian suppliers.
The government announced in March it would introduce sanctions against Russian whitefish, with a 35% tariff on all imports, but the idea was shelved after industry representatives.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs stressed that the sanctions would continue but that it was “subject to further work on the specific implications for the sector”.
Steve Trent, the chief executive of the Environmental Justice Foundation, said: “It is unacceptable for British consumers to be sold fish fingers caught by Russian ships and unknowingly send their hard-earned pounds to fund Putin’s war machine. The government must take urgent action to end the sale of fish caught in Russia in the UK.”
More than 30% of the whitefish sold in Britain are caught by Russian ships, according to estimates by industry association Seafish.
In 2020, the UK imported 432,000 tonnes of whitefish worth £778 million, meaning the money going to Russia is likely to be over £200 million.
Britain imports nearly 10 times the amount of cod and haddock it can catch, eating 1.5 million fish fingers every day. Fish and chip shops also rely heavily on Russian supplies.
Shadow Fisheries Minister Daniel Zeichner said: “Doing everything we can to stand with the people of Ukraine means increasingly tougher, effective sanctions against Putin’s Kremlin, including looking at products that have yet to be effectively tackled.
“Labour has pressured the government over the issue of Russian fish being commonplace on UK supermarket shelves and we are disappointed at their lack of urgency to act.”
Russia accounts for about 45% of the world’s whitefish stock, mainly pollack, cod and haddock, and there is fierce competition for other sources.
Much of the Russian fish caught is then deboned in China or elsewhere before being sold to the UK for processing, making it more difficult for the public to follow supply chains.
Aoife Martin, director of operations at Seafish, said: “A lot of companies have already indicated that they will look at alternative products that they can use instead of Russian fish. But that’s not the kind of thing you can easily or quickly turn away from. There is no immediate alternative offer.”
As brands rush to source whitefish elsewhere, the price of fish fingers and other processed fish is expected to rise.
Andrew Opie, the director of food and sustainability at the BRC, said: “Russian seafood is widely used in the UK food industry and companies will review their sourcing arrangements. Seafood uses complex supply chains and it can be difficult to find alternative sources that are cost-effective. and that do not threaten the future of suppliers or violate contracts.
“We are awaiting a notification from the government on sanctions and tariffs, but they will assess the impact on consumers in terms of price and availability.”
A Birds Eye spokesperson said: “With the highest inflation in 40 years, raising food and living costs for many families, we are committed to continuing to provide nutritious and affordable seafood products, without compromising our commitment to only using sustainably certified fish.”
Birds Eye said there were no sanctions related to the fish it bought and that it was “accelerating our existing strategy to find alternative sources of sustainable fish” to meet an industry-wide challenge.
A spokesman for Defra said: “We, with our allies and partners, are imposing the most punitive sanctions ever on Russia following its unprovoked and illegal invasion of Ukraine.”