Fish fingers sold in most UK supermarkets use whitefish caught by Russian ships, despite many chains pledging to boycott Russian produce.
While supermarkets have taken steps to signal their solidarity with Ukraine, rebranding their chicken kievs as kyivs and taking Russian vodka off the shelves, they have carried on buying its fish.
Big 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 deferred 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, though Waitrose still stocks brands that use it. Tesco and Asda have stopped buying directly from Russian suppliers.
The government announced in March it would introduce sanctions on Russian whitefish, with a 35% tariff on all imports, but the idea was put on hold after representations from industry.
A Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs spokesperson insisted the sanctions would be going ahead 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 that British consumers are being sold fish fingers caught by Russian vessels, unknowingly sending their hard-earned pounds to fund Putin’s war machine. The government should take urgent action to end the sale of Russian-caught fish in the UK.”
More than 30% of the whitefish on sale in Britain is caught by Russian ships, according to estimates from industry body Seafish.
In 2020, the UK imported 432,000 tonnes of whitefish at a value of £778m, meaning the money going to Russia is likely to be in excess of £200m.
Britain imports almost 10 times the volume of cod and haddock that it is able to catch, with 1.5m fish fingers eaten every day. Fish and chip shops are also heavily reliant on Russian supply.
The shadow fisheries minister, Daniel Zeichner, said: “Doing all we can to stand beside the people of Ukraine means ever-tightening, effective sanctions on Putin’s Kremlin that includes looking at products which have yet to be effectively targeted.
“Labour has been pressing the government on the issue of Russian fish being commonplace on UK supermarket shelves and we are disappointed at their lack of urgency to act on this.”
Russia accounts for about 45% of the world’s whitefish supply, largely pollack, cod and haddock, and there is fierce competition to find other sources.
Much of the Russian fish caught is then deboned in China or elsewhere before being sold to the UK to be processed, which makes it harder for the public to track supply chains.
Aoife Martin, the director of operations at Seafish, said: “A lot of companies have already indicated that they will look at alternative products that they can use in place of Russian fish. But that’s not the sort of thing that you can pivot away from easily or quickly. There isn’t an alternative supply readily available.”
As brands scramble to source whitefish elsewhere, the price of fish fingers and other processed fish is expected to soar.
Andrew Opie, the director of food & sustainability at the BRC, said: “Russian fish is used extensively in the UK food industry, and businesses will be reviewing their sourcing arrangements. Seafood uses complex supply chains, and it can be difficult to find alternative sources which are cost-effective and do not threaten the future of suppliers or breach contracts.
“We are waiting to hear from the government on sanctions and tariffs, but they will be assessing the impact on consumers in terms of price and availability.”
A Birds Eye spokesperson said: “With the highest inflation in 40 years increasing food and living costs for many families, we are doing everything we can to continue to provide nutritious and affordable fish products, without compromising on our commitment to only use sustainably certified fish.”
Birds Eye said that no sanctions were in place affecting 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 Defra spokesperson said: “We, with our allies and partners, are imposing the most punishing sanctions ever on Russia following its unprovoked and illegal invasion of Ukraine.”