Widespread seafood fraud in the U.S.

Oceana study finds up to 33% of seafood sold in the U.S. may be mislabeled

by LWY Flickr Creative Commons

by LWY Flickr Creative Commons

From my column in the Communities @ Washington Times

WASHINGTON DC, February 23, 2013- Seafood has become an important part of the American diet.  The American Heart Association (AHA) and the new Dietary Guidelines from the U.S. government both recommend two seafood meals per week.  However, according to a new study by Oceana, a nonprofit ocean conservation group, chances are the snapper on your plate is really tilapia and the white tuna is really escolar, a controversial fish associated with digestive problems, called the “Ex-lax fish” by some.

Between 2010 and 2012 Oceana employees and volunteers purchased over 1,200 samples of seafood from 674 retail outlets (grocery stores, restaurants, and sushi venues) in major metropolitan areas in 21 states.  In the largest seafood fraud study publicly released in the U.S. to date, Oceana purchased samples in retail outlets in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York City, Austin, Houston, Miami, Chicago, and Washington, DC.  After conducting DNA tests, the study concluded that 33% of all samples were mislabeled according to FDA guidelines.

DNA analysis found that 87% of samples labeled “snapper” were mislabeled, as were 57% of samples labeled “tuna.”   Nationwide, only seven of the 120 samples labeled snapper were actually snapper.   Every single sample sold as snapper in Seattle, Portland, Boston, Washington DC and Northern and Southern California was mislabeled.  Similarly, halibut, grouper, cod, and Chilean sea bass were mislabeled between 19 and 38% of the time; sole was mislabeled 9%, and salmon was mislabeled 7% of the time.

Nationally, the worst offenders were sushi venues, where fish was mislabeled an average of 74% of the time, followed by restaurants with 38%, and grocery stores at 18%.  Mislabeling varied by city and region, with the least mislabeling occurring in Seattle and Boston (18%), and highest level of mislabeling in Southern California (52%) and Austin/Houston (49%).

So what kind of fish is being sold as “snapper” and “tuna”?  Oceana found that most fish sold as snapper was really either rockfish or tilapia; 94% of samples sold as white tuna were actually escolar.

Fish used as a substitution is often fish carrying health advisories; farmed fish sold as wild; and imperiled, vulnerable, or overfished species sold as sustainable.  Species not recognized by the FDA as one of the over 1,700 seafood species consumed or likely to be consumed in the U.S. were also found among the samples tested by Oceana.

How does this happen and who does it affect?

Since the study only sampled seafood sold in retail outlets, there is no way to tell exactly where in the supply chain the bait-and-switch occurs.

Seafood, a global commodity, is part of a vast network that, from boat to plate, is increasingly complex and difficult to trace.  In 2011, 91% of the seafood consumed in the U.S. was imported.  However, only about 2% of imported seafood is inspected by FDA and even when it is inspected, FDA’s primary seafood oversight program does not address fraud.

The lack of FDA oversight, the complexity of the supply chain, the cornucopia of seafood available (over 1,700 species), and the fact that most fish is sold in fillet form, processed or prepared in sauce, make it exceedingly difficult–if not impossible–for the consumer to identify exactly what he or she is eating.

While some mislabeling may occur due to human error in identifying the kind of fish or where it came from, most mislabeling occurs when a more desirable fish is replaced with a less expensive, more common, or illegal species for economic gain.

Mislabeling cheats the consumer, hurts honest fishermen who play by the rules, covers up for illegal fishing, ignores the health concerns of consumers, and endangers the life of our oceans and survival of many fish species.

Health concerns are probably the most disturbing.  Escolar, sold as “white tuna” nearly 84% of the time, contains gempylotoxin, a naturally occurring toxin that can have severe gastrointestinal effects when ingested in even a few ounces of fish.  Escolar is banned in Italy and Japan, and the FDA advises against its sale in the U.S.  Other fish, like snapper, halibut, and grouper are often substituted with species containing higher mercury levels like swordfish, shark, tilefish, and king mackerel.  Additionally, many people have allergies to certain species and rely on accurate food labeling.

The health of the world’s oceans and waterways as well as the survival of certain species is imperiled by mislabeling.  Given the lack of oversight and transparency in the supply chain, it is easy for illegally fished or even endangered species to make it on to a consumer’s plate under the guise of a legal or sustainable label.  This not only endangers our oceans, it also further cheats honest fishermen and suppliers by reducing public confidence in the fishing industry.


Oceana concludes that the endemic mislabeling of seafood nationwide underlies a pressing need for a comprehensive traceability system.  Under the proposed system, labeling guidelines would require information about “when, where and how a fish was caught, what species it is, whether it was farmed or previously frozen and if any additives have been used during processing.”  A system of full traceability is necessary to ensure that customers have the necessary information to make educated choices about the seafood they are purchasing.

In the absence of government action, there are few things that consumers can do to minimize seafood fraud.  Whether in a restaurant or supermarket, ask questions about the species, where it was caught, and whether it was wild or farmed.  Customer interest and inquiries should prompt retailers to ask questions themselves and be educated about the fish they sell.  Price can also be a good indicator of whether seafood is mislabeled; if it is too good to be true, it probably is.  Finally purchasing fish whole can also minimize the chances of getting duped.  Finally, report suspected mislabeling to NOAA via email at safe.seafood@noaa.gov or telephone at 1-800-853-1964.

READ MORE: A World in Our Backyard by Laura Sesana