From California to Vermont, from British Columbia to Newfoundland, fake and mislabeled seafood is being sold everywhere. On restaurant menus, in the frozen food section at your local grocery store, in almost every sushi bar, raw or cooked, seafood fraud is ubiquitous across the United States and Canada. In the endless quest for huge profits, lower priced seafood is being substituted for the more expensive. Since in most cases it is hard to tell which is which, shameless swindlers are getting away with defrauding the public. The US imports 91% of its seafood, but less than 1% of this seafood is inspected for fraud.
The non-profit group Oceana is the world’s largest ocean conservation and advocacy organization (see Wikipedia link below). From 2010 to 2012 the group collected more than 1,200 seafood samples from 674 supermarkets, fish stores and restaurants in 21 states. DNA testing revealed that 33% of all samples were mislabeled. The primary findings were:
----Products sold as red snapper and tuna were the most mislabeled.
----Of the 120 red snapper samples, only 7 were the real thing.
----Out of the 114 tuna samples tested, 67 were mislabeled.
----Cod, halibut and Chilean seabass were mislabeled between 19% and 38% of all samples.
----Salmon was only mislabeled in 7% of all samples.
----Of all outlets visited, 44% sold at least one type of mislabeled fish.
----Of the 118 sushi outlets visited, 95% sold mislabeled seafood.
----Of the 408 grocery and seafood markets visited, 27% sold mislabeled seafood.
----Of the 148 restaurants visited, 52% sold mislabeled seafood. Snapper was mislabeled in 77% of samples, followed by cod (59%) and Chilean seabass (36%).
Most common substitutions (The actual seafood is less expensive than what is labeled for the consumer):
----Langostino and crawfish sold as lobster
----King mackerel sold as grouper
----Escolar sold as white tuna
----Tilapia sold as red snapper
---- Atlantic halibut sold as Pacific halibut
----Tuna and red snapper sold as sushi
----Catfish was sold as perch, grouper and sole
---- Alaska Pollock was sold as cod
----Skate wings sold as scallops
----Steelhead trout sold as salmon
----Farm raised salmon sold as wild caught salmon
----Mystery fish that DNA tests could not identify – sold as grouper
Mislabeling violation rates in the US:
Southern California: 52%
Houston and Austin: 49%
New York City: 39%
South Florida and Northern California: 38%
Washington DC: 26%
In his book, Real Food / Fake Food: Why You Don’t Know What You’re Eating & What You Can Do About It, award-winning journalist and author Larry Olmstead covers some of the consequences of seafood substitution:
“In the seafood industry, escolar is nicknamed ‘Ex-Lax fish’, because it contains a natural wax ester that can give people digestive distress and diarrhea for days. It was responsible for a wave of six hundred illnesses in Hong Kong and has been banned completely in food-safety-obsessed Japan for nearly forty years. It was effectively banned here too by an ‘import bulletin’ issued by the FDA in the early 1990’s but then unbanned in 1998 when the bulletin was canceled. When people get sick after eating sushi or sashimi, they often blame the rawness for their stomach distress, saying something like ‘I must have had bad tuna’. It’s more likely their problems were caused by the fact that they never had tuna at all. While no one ever orders it, escolar is one of the best-selling and most widely served fish in this country.”
Olmstead quotes New York infection disease specialist Dr. Mark Stoeckle on the risks of substituting with farm-raised seafood:
“No one knows where they were raised, how they were raised, how they got here, or what kinds of antibiotics were used. There’s a huge disconnect between growing consumer interest in where it’s grown and how it’s grown on one hand, and the fact that we are not even getting the species being advertised on the other.”
Oceana’s senior scientist Kimberly Warner gives an overview of the problems:
“There are species that harbor natural toxins and unnatural toxins – we saw high mercury fish that the FDA tells people to avoid being sold as much less dangerous fish. Other risks are allergies with seafood, which are sometimes very species specific. There are a number of other health hazards: We have ciguatera poisoning from fish in tropical and subtropical waters that are infected, and it is a very nasty poisoning with neurological symptoms that some people don’t ever recover from. The tests to screen for it are not easy to perform. There are paralytic shellfish poisonings, viral diseases, cholera. In the US we monitor our shellfish a lot more carefully, but most of it is not domestic.”
A Typical Case of Mislabeled and Unsafe Shrimp
Olmstead gives an example of the all-too-common risks with imported seafood:
“In 2007, the FDA banned the import of five Chinese farmed seafood products, including shrimp, after testing revealed unapproved drugs in the shrimp ….. So Chinese shrimp farmers began illegally transshipping their shrimp through Indonesia, entering the United States with a ‘Product of Indonesia’ label. That worked fine for the first six million dollars’ worth of shrimp the pirates exported, until the United States noticed a spike in the volume of cheap shrimp suddenly coming out of Indonesia and levied antidumping tariffs. Without missing a beat, the banned Chinese shrimp were next sent to Malaysia, rebranded as Malaysian, and sold to U.S. consumers. After U.S. Customs officers discovered an illegal transshipment, they began testing ‘Malaysian shrimp’ – after it had been sold and consumed in this country – and found contamination with the same unapproved drugs that got it banned in the first place.”
The Case of the Adulterated Scallops
Olmstead also explains how consumers are cheated when scallops are tainted and inflated:
“This is done by adding water and phosphates, inorganic chemicals, to boost their weight, since seafood is typically sold by the pound. In addition to charging consumers fifteen or eighteen bucks a pound for water, this also lowers the quality of the scallops. The phosphates help them absorb more water than they could naturally, and as much as 25% of the total weight – a quarter of what you are paying for – becomes water. But you won’t find phosphates, water – or any ingredients – on the label.”
Industry insider’s best advice: Buy Alaskan whenever available
Olmstead’s research has led him to two critical pieces of advice for the consumer: buy Alaskan and buy American.
“Perhaps the most reliable of all seafood logos is ‘Alaskan Seafood: Wild, Natural, Sustainable’. Required sustainability, including its vast riches of seafood, was written into Alaska’s state constitution in 1959, making it unique in the United States. The state also completely outlaws fish farming – there is no such thing as farmed Alaskan seafood. All is wild caught, and the state’s fisheries are widely regarded as well managed against overfishing, pollution and habitat damage.
“Alaska has the largest stock of wild salmon on earth and none has been classified as overfished. Wild Alaskan salmon – which means all real Alaskan salmon – has little to no traces of contaminants, is consistently very low in levels of heavy metals and organochlorines, and is purer than fish from most parts of the world. The Alaskan Seafood seal is overseen by Global Trust Certification, which earned ISO 65 accreditation (a highly respected international standard for process execution by the International Organization for Standardization), and the process requires chain of custody of the seafood from catch to retail. The seal applies specifically to Alaskan Pollock, king crab, snow crab, black cod, Pacific halibut and all five species of Alaskan salmon: king (chinook), sockeye (red), coho (silver), keta (chum), and pink.”
Industry insider’s best advice number two: Buy American
“The United States is far and away the world leader in fishery management, safety, sustainability, and responsible aquaculture, a model for the planet. This is true across the board, from wild-caught ocean fishing to shellfish beds to shrimp farms (of which there are very few). ‘Fishery management in the US is the best in the world’, said Michael Bell, director of the California Coastal and Marine Program for the Nature Conservancy. Domestic monitoring of the environmental factors is also better, and the supply chain is less convoluted. Alaskan fish, especially crab and salmon; Mississippi gulf fish, especially wild-caught shrimp; Maine lobster, scallops and fish; and domestically farmed catfish are all good choices – if they are labeled honestly.”
What Consumers Can Do (from Oceana)
Consumers should talk to the person who sells or serves their seafood and ask them questions like what kind of fish it is, if it is wild and where and how it was caught. If retail seafood purveyors know there is a demand for this information, they may be more willing to ask their suppliers to provide such information when they purchase their seafood.
Check the price
If a seafood item is being sold at a price that seems too good to be true, then it is probably is. Similarly, if a seafood price does not seem right, it may be wise to make a different seafood selection.
Purchase the whole fish
Some consumers may also wish to purchase whole fish, which are harder to disguise as mislabeled than fish in fillets.
Report fraudulent activity
If something seems suspicious, consumers are encouraged to contact federal agencies that work on this issue. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) also works to combat seafood fraud. Observant consumers who suspect mislabeling may e-mail them at email@example.com or call the toll-free hotline at 1-800-853-1964. For more information about NOAA’s enforcement of seafood mislabeling please visit: http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/ and http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/ole/faqs.html#regulations
Larry Olmstead, Real Food / Fake Food: Why You Don’t Know What You’re Eating & What You Can Do About It, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2016
Oceana Study Reveals Seafood Fraud Nationwide http://oceana.org/sites/default/files/reports/National_Seafood_Fraud_Testing_Results_FINAL.pdf
Seafood Species Substitution and Economic Fraud http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodScienceResearch/RFE/ucm071528.htm
Fish: What Pregnant Women and Parents Should Know http://www.fda.gov/food/foodborneillnesscontaminants/metals/ucm393070.htm