Endangered Shark Meat Might Be Hiding in Your Pet’s Food

Researchers found about one third of animal feed samples taken in Singapore contained shark DNA

Silky sharks in the ocean
The second most common species the researchers identified was the silky shark, a vulnerable species that is in decline worldwide.  Stephen Frink via Getty Images

The next time you buy cat food from the store, take a look at the ingredients listed on the back. If you see “fish,” “white fish” or “ocean fish,” your pet might be eating shark meat. 

In a new study published in Frontiers in Marine Science, researchers used DNA barcoding to test 45 different pet food products from Singapore. They found about a third of all 144 samples contained DNA from sharks, including some from endangered species. The most common species the researchers identified was the blue shark, followed by the silky shark, which is listed as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List.  

A similar study in 2019 found genetic material from sharks in pet food and cosmetics collected in the United States.

“Given the results of a previous study performed in the U.S., we wanted to see if endangered sharks are also sold in Asian pet food,” say study authors Ian French and Benjamin J. Wainwright, who are both researchers at National University of Singapore, in a statement.

Most products the researchers sampled used generic terms like “fish,” “ocean fish,” “white bait,” or “white fish,” instead of shark, per the study. Some listed “tuna” or “salmon,” and others did not include fish as an ingredient at all.

“Sharks were not listed as ingredients on any of the sampled products tested,” the authors write. “While this is not illegal or a required procedure, we argue that many pet owners and lovers would be alarmed to find out that they are likely contributing to the unsustainable fishing practices that have caused massive declines in global shark populations.” 

Bar plot showing the proportion of shark species identified in this work along with their IUCN red list status
Researchers tested 45 different pet food products from 16 brands in Singapore for shark DNA. French and Wainwright via Frontiers in Marine Science

Global shark and ray numbers have dropped more than 70 percent in the last 50 years, mostly because of overfishing, a study published in the journal Nature last year found. In 2012, NBC News’ Michael Casey reported as many as 70 million sharks are killed annually for their fins. 

“We are on the cusp of starting to lose this ancient group of creatures, species by species right here, right now,” Andy Cornish, leader of WWF’s global shark and ray conservation program told the Environment News Service last year. “Starting now, we need far greater action by governments to limit fishing and bring these functionally important animals back from the brink.” 

The authors write that shark meat may be used in pet food in an attempt to avoid waste in the shark fin industry, where low-value carcasses are often discarded. 

“If this is the case, that may be commendable,” they write. “However, we are skeptical that this is the sole reason that sharks end up in pet food. More likely, their presence demonstrates the high fishing pressure to which sharks are increasingly subjected.” 

French and Wainwright suggest that better labeling would allow consumers to make more informed decisions about what they purchase. 

“This in turn would benefit shark populations by helping to mitigate unsustainable fishing and resource use incompatible with their continued survival,” they write.