American consumers expect honest labeling in order to make informed choices about their purchases at grocery stores and restaurants. But buyer beware — consumers may be getting duped, and even jeopardizing their health, the next time they order their favorite seafood dish.
In one of the largest studies of this kind in the world to date, the nonprofit Oceana has discovered that a third, or 33 percent, of 1,215 seafood samples tested through DNA analysis across the country were fraudulently labeled according to U.S. Food and Drug Administration guidelines.
Seafood fraud is any type of activity that misrepresents the seafood you buy. It often includes species substitution, when one species of fish is swapped for a cheaper, less desirable or more readily available species; this is often done for economic gain.
Alarmingly, Oceana found this type of fraud in every location tested throughout the United States — in 674 retail outlets in 21 different states, ranging from the East Coast (Washington, D.C.) through the Midwest (Chicago, Kansas City) to the West Coast (Portland, Oregon).
Many regions had mislabeling rates higher than that 33 percent national average: 52 percent in southern California, 49 percent in Austin and Houston, 48 percent in Boston (including testing by the Boston Globe), 39 percent in New York City, and 38 percent in northern California and south Florida.
No matter where you live, the bait and switch of seafood throughout the U.S. is robbing consumers of hard-earned dollars when they unknowingly buy falsely labeled fish. Buying seafood should not be a guessing game. Consumers should be able to trust what is on the label or on the menu.
Some of the most alarming species substitutions were those that could harm your health. Oceana found some species on the FDA’s do-not-eat list for sensitive groups (such as pregnant women and children) mislabeled as safer choices. King mackerel and tilefish, both on the FDA’s list due to high mercury content, were found mislabeled as grouper in south Florida and red snapper and halibut in New York City, respectively.
Fish, especially those with health impacts, must be honestly labeled at every grocery store, restaurant, and sushi bar. Escolar, a snake mackerel that contains a naturally occurring toxin, was found substituted for white tuna 84 percent of the time in sushi bars nationwide. This "ex-lax" fish can cause severe digestive harm in some people who eat more than a few ounces. By unintentionally purchasing certain species of fish, consumers could be risking their health without even knowing it.
Commonly mislabeled fish nationwide were snappers, which were mislabeled at an overwhelmingly high rate of 89 percent, and tuna, at 59 percent. Astonishingly, only seven of the 120 red-snapper samples purchased throughout the entire country were correctly labeled. Regionally iconic fish such as salmon had a lower mislabeling rate of seven percent, while other significant species, such as halibut, grouper, cod, and Chilean sea bass, were mislabeled between 19 and 38 percent of the time.
Where you buy your fish matters. Nationally, 44 percent of the retail outlets (grocery stores, restaurants, and sushi bars) Oceana visited sold mislabeled fish, although the chance of being duped varied greatly depending on where a consumer visited. Sushi bars were the worst culprits, with almost three-fourths selling mislabeled fish, followed by lower rates at restaurants and grocery stores.
Besides harming consumer wallets and health, seafood fraud also has damaging impacts on our ocean ecosystems, with sustainable fish often being swapped for overfished and vulnerable species. Oceana found the overfished Atlantic halibut sold as the better-managed Pacific halibut, as well as speckled hind, a fish listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as critically endangered, sold as more sustainable red grouper.
Oceana also found less expensive farmed fish sold as wild-caught species, such as tilapia sold as red snapper. These forms of fraud are detrimental not only to human health, but to the health of our oceans and sensitive fish populations that are struggling to survive. Swaps like these make it difficult for consumers to make conservation-minded purchasing decisions, especially when they hope to enjoy sustainably-caught seafood that does not harm the environment.
The only way to put an end to seafood fraud is by requiring traceability for all seafood sold in the U.S. that thoroughly tracks seafood from boat to plate. With information following the fish that is transparent and verifiable, like the specific species, and where, when, and how a fish was caught, it is harder to bait-and-switch consumers.
More than 90 percent of seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported, yet the Food and Drug Administration inspects only 2 percent of the imports and less than 1 percent specifically for fraud. Seafood fraud not only hurts consumers, but responsible fishermen and seafood businesses along the supply chain.
Everywhere Oceana looked for seafood fraud, we found it. It’s clear that this is not a local or regional issue, but a widespread problem that needs national attention. We need to track our seafood from boat to plate, with key information following the fish all the way to the consumer, and the federal government needs to make fighting seafood fraud a priority.
Tracking fish from sea to retailer is the only way to ensure that our oceans, our wallets, and our health are protected. Consumers deserve to know that they are getting what they pay for, and that when they open their pocketbooks, they are purchasing seafood that is safe, legally caught, and honestly labeled.
Beth Lowell is the campaign director at Oceana, the largest international advocacy group working solely to protect the world’s oceans.
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