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Fish Fraud Strikes Again

by Andrea Klausner, MS, RD  

Just about every year a study comes out finding rampant seafood fraud—and 2018 was no exception. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “Fish fraud is committed when fish is illegally placed on the market with the intention of deceiving the customer, usually for financial gain.”

Most commonly, fish fraud involves substituting a cheaper variety of fish for a more expensive one (farmed salmon for wild salmon, for instance) or deliberately mislabeling it in order to reap greater profits, cover for illegal fishing practices, or avoid taxation. It’s easy to commit fish fraud since many fish species look and taste similar, especially after filleting and preparation.

The latest study, published in Food Control in June, tested 281 seafood samples in Vancouver, using DNA barcoding (which compares the DNA of the sample to a database of known species) and found that 25 percent overall were mislabeled, most commonly red snapper. Restaurants fared worst (28 percent mislabeled), followed by grocery stores (24 percent) and sushi bars (22 percent). Previous studies, including ones that have looked at samples around the world, have found even higher rates of fish fraud.

This followed a small study from George Washington University in 2017 that found that four of 12 seafood items ordered at six popular restaurants in Washington D.C., were mislabeled, also based on DNA barcoding—mostly with closely related species (that is, not egregious bait and switches). In one case, whiteleg shrimp, typically farmed, was sold as more-desirable and tastier rock shrimp. In another case, the fish swapped was one that was a conservation concern.

In 2016, the conservancy group Oceana found that 20 percent of 25,700 seafood samples tested in 55 countries were mislabeled; the aver­age in the U.S. since 2014 was 28 percent.

What you can do

Tracking of seafood from catch to table has greatly reduced fish fraud in Europe. The U.S. Seafood Import Monitoring Program, which went into effect in early 2018, should do the same here.

In the meantime, here’s what to do to better ensure that you are getting the fish you pay for:

  • Ask where the fish came from, whether it was farmed or wild, what fishing methods were used, and whether it was sustainably sourced. The more the fishmonger knows about it, the better.
  • If possible, buy the whole fish, which is less likely to be mislabeled—or at least ask to see the whole fish before it is filleted.
  • 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.

This article first appeared in the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter.

Also see A Sea of Waste.