The conservancy group Oceana has been reporting on seafood fraud since 2010 to make shoppers aware that the fish they are buying is often not what it’s advertised to be. Its latest analysis, from September 2016, found that overall 20 percent of 25,700 seafood samples tested in 55 countries were mislabeled; the average in the U.S. since 2014 was 28 percent. The report included more than 200 peer-reviewed studies, journalist investigations, and government documents, most from the last decade.
Among the highlights:
- Seafood fraud was found in every study (except one small one) and on all continents (except Antarctica, which wasn’t represented).
- Mislabeling occurred at every point of the food chain, from boat or fish farm to processors and distributors to grocers and restaurants.
- The most common substitute was Asian catfish (pangasius), which was passed off as 18 different kinds of pricier fish, including perch, grouper, and sole.
- In about two-thirds of the studies, the fraud appeared intentional, motivated by economic gain, with cheaper fish substituted for more expensive ones.
- More worrisome, 58 percent of the bait-and-switched fish were kinds that could pose health risks, including allergies and severe gastrointestinal problems, such as from a toxin in escolar, which is often sold as “white tuna” in sushi restaurants.
The report also contains an interactive map that reveals the location and descriptions of the studies reviewed.
Action on the high seas
Seafood fraud “threatens consumer health and safety, cheats consumers when they pay higher prices for a mislabeled lower-value fish, and hides harmful practices like illegal fishing, poorly regulated aquaculture and human rights abuses,” the report states. That’s why Oceana is advocating for full traceability of seafood, from catch to table. It estimates that mislabeling has decreased by two-thirds since regulations to reduce illegal fishing and increase traceability were put in place in the European Union in 2010.
The Seafood Import Monitoring Program, which is undergoing finalization in the U.S., is a good start here, though critics say it’s not comprehensive enough because traceability ends at the U.S. border, and only 13 seafood species are covered. The program also doesn’t address domestic seafood.
In the Oceana study, some mislabeled fish were species considered at risk of extinction, but sold as a more abundant variety. This was done, for instance, to cover for illegal practices. But ironically, according to a study in Conservation Letters in November 2016, seafood fraud may, on the whole, be good for the sustainability of fisheries. In analyzing data from 43 studies that tested more than 6,700 fish samples for mislabeling, the researchers found that despite much variation, in most cases the substituted species had a better conservation status—meaning it was more plentiful and less endangered—than the one it was said to be.
Fishing for answers
Ask questions when selecting seafood— where it comes from, whether it is farmed or wild, what fishing methods were used, and whether it was sustainably sourced. 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. And be wary if the price seems too low. For example, inexpensive “wild” salmon is likely to be farmed Atlantic salmon, especially in the winter, when wild salmon is in limited supply. Seafood that carries certification from such organizations as the Marine Stewardship Council and Aquaculture Stewardship Council is more likely to be what it says it is. But perhaps the simplest solution is to switch to less-expensive varieties of fish, since these are more likely to be the “real” thing, as well as more sustainable.
Also see Beware of Food Fraud.