Fake caviar from Bulgaria and Romania

Caviar without official label. Photo: IZW
Caviar without official label. Photo: IZW

A considerable amount of sturgeon caviar sold in Bulgaria and Romania is mislabeled or even counterfeit. These findings were discovered by scientists from the German Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (IZW) and the WWF Austria. The results of the market survey have just been published in the scientific journal “Journal of Applied Ichthyology”.

Analyses of 27 caviar samples from Bulgaria and Romania revealed an unexpectedly high level of caviar offered for sale with wrong labels or without labels. Actually, all sturgeon caviar containers must bear a label with a universal code providing all important information about the origin of the caviar, e.g. sturgeon species, aqua culture or wild caught fish and country of origin. However, in seven cases caviar was sold illegally in shops or by street vendors without labels on their containers. All caviar samples were analysed genetically to identify the sturgeon species. Only ten labeled tins or jars were in agreement with the species code on their label. Four samples were mislabeled, containing caviar from another sturgeon species or more than one species. In at least one case of mislabeling the caviar was “upgraded” from a lower-priced species to a more expensive one. Six samples were counterfeit and should not have been declared as caviar at all. Three of these counterfeits were free from animal DNA and probably made entirely of artificial substances. One sample was identified as a fish species called lumpsucker (Cyclopterus lumpus) whose eggs are commonly offered as caviar substitute. The other two counterfeits were most likely made of sturgeon meat.

“Considering sturgeon conservation, four samples were of most concern. These samples were sold in restaurants or by street vendors explicitly as originating from wild Danube sturgeon, which were therefore illegally caught”, mentions Arne Ludwig from the German Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (IZW). All four samples originated from the critically endangered beluga sturgeon (Huso huso) whose population in the Danube region seems to be on the brink of extinction. “An effective conservation of sturgeons can only be possible, if poaching and illegal trade are finally banned”, adds Jutta Jahrl from WWF Austria.

Real caviar is one of the most expensive animal products in world trade and is harvested from sturgeons and paddlefishes. The price of caviar depends strongly on its species of origin with caviar from beluga sturgeon being the most expensive. Not surprisingly, poaching poses a major thread to the survival of sturgeon species worldwide. According to assessments of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 2009, sturgeons are considered to be the most critically endangered group of animals worldwide. All 27 species of sturgeons and paddlefishes have been included in the list of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to support their protection from illegal trade. Thus, any international trade of sturgeon specimens, parts or products should be controlled and include the above mentioned labeling system. However, the relatively high number of mislabeled caviar containers casts doubt on the efficiency of the CITES labeling and its control.

“Romania and Bulgaria are the only countries of the European Union where viable populations of sturgeons still occur in the wild, e.g. in the Black Sea and the Danube River”, reports Harald Rosenthal, President of the World Sturgeon Conservation Society (WSCS). Although catch and trade bans were established in both countries, illegal fishing obviously continues. “The results of our study demonstrate the weakness of sturgeon protection in Romania and Bulgaria. Therefore, we recommend enhancing conservation and enforcement efforts”, emphasises IZW scientist Arne Ludwig. Together with his colleagues, he suggests to intensify DNA testing of caviar, also including containers with apparently correct label.

Ludwig A, Lieckfeldt D, Jahrl J (2015): Mislabeled and counterfeit sturgeon caviar from Bulgaria and Romania. J APPL ICHTHYOL; DOI: 10.1111/JAI.12856; http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jai.12856/pdf

Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (IZW)
Alfred-Kowalke-Str. 17
10315 Berlin

Arne Ludwig
Tel.: +49 30 5168-312

Steven Seet
Tel.: +49 30 5168-125

WWF Austria
Ottakringer Straße 114-116, 1160 Vienna
Jutta Jahrl
Tel.: +43/1/48817-264

World Sturgeon Conservation Society
Schifferstrasse 48, 21629 Neu Wulmstorf




Background information:

The Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (IZW) investigates the vitality and adaptability of wildlife populations in mammalian and avian species of outstanding ecological interest that face anthropogenic challenges. It studies the adaptive value of traits in the life cycle of wildlife, wildlife diseases and clarifies the biological basis and development of methods for the protection of threatened species. Such knowledge is a precondition for a scientifically based approach to conservation and for the development of concepts for the ecologically sustainable use of natural resources. The IZW belongs to the Forschungsverbund Berlin e.V. (www.fv-berlin.de)



The Leibniz Association connects 89 independent research institutions that range in focus from the natural, engineering and environmental sciences via economics, spatial and social sciences to the humanities. Leibniz Institutes address issues of social, economic and ecological relevance. They conduct knowledge-driven and applied basic research, maintain scientific infrastructure and provide research-based services. The Leibniz Association identifies focus areas for knowledge transfer to policy-makers, academia, business and the public. Leibniz Institutes collaborate intensively with universities – in the form of “WissenschaftsCampi” (thematic partnerships between university and non-university research institutes), for example – as well as with industry and other partners at home and abroad. They are subject to an independent evaluation procedure that is unparalleled in its transparency. Due to the institutes’ importance for the country as a whole, they are funded jointly by the Federation and the Länder, employing some 17,500 individuals, including 8,800 researchers. The entire budget of all the institutes is approximately 1.5 billion EUR.