Mislabeled fish is flooding the marketplace and Americans may be swallowing it hook, line and sinker, according to a new study by an environmental activist group.
A look at seafood sales across the country by ocean conservation group Oceana found that roughly one third of the time, seafood sold at U.S. grocery stores, seafood markets, restaurants and sushi venues had been swapped for species that are cheaper, overfished, or risky to eat.
Beth Lowell, campaign director for Oceana, told CNN that the study was conducted over the course of two years and encompassed retail outlets in major metropolitan areas across 21 states. Staff and supporters of the organization purchased 1,247 pieces of fish and submitted samples to a lab for DNA testing to determine if the species matched the in-store menu or label in accordance with Food and Drug Administration naming guidelines.
Out of the 1,215 samples that were eventually tested, 401 were determined to be mislabeled.
Seafood fraud is of particular interest to the FDA not only because the lack of a standard naming convention would prevent correct species identification and inhibit processors' and consumers' knowledge of the potential safety hazards and allergens, but also because it may enable economic fraud due to high value fish being swapped for lower value species. The FDA’s “Seafood List” identifies acceptable market, scientific, common and vernacular names and specifies which may be used interchangeably to avoid any ambiguity in the marketplace. The agency frowns upon the use of vernacular names, which are usually introduced at the regional level.
The two most mislabeled fish, according to Oceana, were snapper (for which 33 different species of fish including rockfish, perch, sea bream and tilapia were substituted) and tuna, which was mostly replaced with escolar - an often-banned snake mackerel that can cause mild to severe gastric distress to those who consume it. In many cases, Atlantic cod, which is often overfished, was mislabeled as the more sustainable Pacific cod (and vice-versa). Grouper was often replaced with at-risk species including Gulf grouper and speckled hind, or in one case, king-mackerel, a high-mercury fish that the federal government has advised sensitive groups, such as pregnant women, to avoid.
The most frequent outlet for mislabeling was sushi restaurants. Out of 118 sushi venues visited, 95% sold fish that varied from their menu identification, including the previously mentioned snapper and tuna, as well as yellowtail/hamachi, which was incorrectly labeled in every case.
Diners at non-sushi restaurants received considerably more honest ingredients,according to Oceana, with just more than half of the 148 visited locations selling incorrectly labeled fish (snapper and cod again were the most slippery catch). And grocery store shoppers fared best of all, with only 27% of the 408 stores selling seafood that didn’t live up to its label’s claims.
While this was one of the largest studies to date, the findings echoed those in previous studies by the Boston Globe (48% mislabeling in 183 local samples in 2011, with little improvement in a 2012 follow-up), Consumer Reports (20 to 25% mislabeled), and the United States Government Accountability Office, which used its 2009 findings to call on the federal government for additional inspection resources.
But who is responsible for reeling in this widespread fraud and why is it happening in the first place?
That’s where things get fishy, despite the efforts of the seafood industry. U.S. fishermen provide most of this information at the dock, but save for product from participants in voluntary programs like Trace Register or Trace and Trust, it is extremely difficult for vendors and consumers to track this information from boat to plate.
The matter is further muddied by the fact that 91% of seafood consumed in the United States is imported from other countries, 54% of which is processed at sea, and roughly 2% of which is governmentally inspected for fraud. The further a fish gets from its origins, sold in parts rather than whole, the more difficult it is to track to its eventual destination, leaving the supply chain wide open to human error and deliberate deception.
According to the GAO, three federal agencies play key roles in detecting and preventing seafood fraud: the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection, which reviews import information to detect fraud schemes; the Department of Commerce’s National Marine Fisheries Service, which offers a voluntary, fee-based inspection program, and the FDA, which focuses its seafood-specific resources primarily on health issues by way of the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points management program. The separation of responsibility and lack of collaboration, the GAO’s analysis found, left the system especially vulnerable to fraud.
While the agencies might not be aligned in their methodology, they - and organizations like Oceana, Food and Water Watch and the Blue Ocean Group - do all agree: every level of the seafood chain suffers as a result of fraud. From the economic impact on the fisheries that are undercut by sellers skirting the rules, fish species endangered by a muddied tally of their stocks, vendors and chefs whose reputations are at stake, and diners who risk ingesting allergens and toxins from mislabeled fish, there is a cost to misidentified seafood.
In 2009, the FDA sanctioned seafood seller Peter Xuong Lam, president of Virginia Star Seafood Corporation, after he was convicted of conspiracy to import catfish, falsely labeled as sole, grouper, flounder, snakehead, channa, and other species of fish, from Vietnam for fraudulent sale. He was sentenced to five years in prison and became the first food importer ever to be debarred (for a period of 20 years) by the agency. The agency continues to cite and seeks to prosecute offenders who attempt to undermine the system, but notes that the responsibility of regulating retail food stores and restaurants falls primarily to state and local agencies.
In 2012, U.S. Reps. Edward Markey and Barney Frank, both Massachusetts Democrats, introduced the Safety and Fraud Enforcement for Seafood Act which would require full traceability for all seafood sold in the United States. The bill died in Congress, but industry members and civilians are taking up the charge.
Members of the National Fisheries Institute can sign a pledge to stamp out economic fraud in the seafood industry, and its Better Seafood Board provides a mechanism for members of the seafood industry to report fraud where they see it occurring and provide documentation on issues that arise.
Closer to the plate, in October 2012, 500 chefs - including Mario Batali, Thomas Keller and Rick Bayless - signed a pledge calling on the U.S. government to require that seafood be traceable in order to prevent seafood fraud and keep illegal fish out of the U.S. market.
But diners need not be left dangling.
Lowell recommends that consumers empower themselves by purchasing whole fish, which are easier to identify, and not trusting prices that seem too good to be true. She also encourages asking questions of fish vendors, such as what kind of fish it is, whether it was wild-caught or farm-raised and where, when and how the fish was caught. Even raising the question will alert the sales staff that consumers are interested in where their food comes from - and that they won’t settle for anything fishy.
NOAA Fishwatch.org - The public can send information on possible mislabeling violations to firstname.lastname@example.org or NOAA’s hotline at 1-800-853-1964
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