A recent report on seafood by the conservancy group Oceana caught the attention of many fish eaters. It found widespread labeling fraud in restaurants and supermarkets across the U.S., mirroring the results of previous investigations in East and West Coast cities.
Of more than 1,200 fish samples from 671 retail outlets in 21 states, one-third were mislabeled, as revealed by DNA testing. For example, fish labeled as wild salmon, grouper or Chilean sea bass were often something else. Most egregious, 113 out of 120 “red snapper” samples were another snapper species or an unrelated fish, like rockfish, tilapia or ocean perch. Think you’re buying lemon sole or halibut? There’s a good chance you’re getting flounder. What about that striped bass or cod? It might really be porgy.
Grocery stores fared best—but even there, one in five samples was falsely labeled. Restaurants mislabeled 38 percent of the samples. Most unsettling, sushi bars got it wrong 74 percent of the time.
It’s unclear where the problem originates. “With an increasingly complex and obscure seafood supply chain, it is difficult to identify if fraud is occurring on the boat, during processing, at the retail counter or somewhere along the way,” the report said. The mislabeling may be accidental (many fish, like different snappers, look alike), but in many cases, if not most, it’s likely intentional (for financial gain).
The harm is usually just to your pocketbook, if you end up paying a premium for a cheaper fish—or to your values, if you think you are buying a sustainable fish and get one that is overfished or otherwise mismanaged. But in some cases, mislabeling can be dangerous—for instance, if fish labeled as snapper or halibut is actually tilefish, a high-mercury fish. At sushi restaurants, “white tuna” (shiro maguro) is often escolar, a snake mackerel. Escolar can have explosive laxative effects, which is why it is banned or has advisories in a number of countries.
Don’t give up on fish, but do take these steps to reel in only the ones you want.
How to avoid fish fraud
- Buy from a fishmonger or market you trust. Country of Origin Labeling (COOL), which went into effect a few years ago, is supposed to identify the source of the fish at the seafood counter. But rather than trust the label blindly, a better bet is to ask a lot of questions—such as where the fish comes from, whether it is farmed or wild, what fishing methods were used, and whether it was sustainably sourced.
- Ask questions when ordering fish at a restaurant. Your server (or the chef) should be able to provide such information. Think twice about ordering “white tuna” sushi.
- Be wary if the price seems too low. Inexpensive “wild” salmon (say, $8.99 a pound), for example, is likely to be farmed Atlantic salmon, especially in the winter when wild salmon is in limited supply.
- If possible, buy the whole fish, which is less likely to be misidentified and thus mislabeled—or at least ask to see the whole fish before it is filleted.
- Support efforts by Oceana to require traceability of seafood from boat to plate, as well as increased federal inspections and testing, by writing to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).