Do You Know What Fish You're Eating?May 31, 2011 | Parker Waichman LLP
When you sit down at a restaurant and order red snapper, can you safely assume you're going to be served red snapper? If a new report from the group Oceana is to be believed, you can't, thanks to rampant seafood labeling fraud. Chances are the fish you bought at a supermarket is also mislabeled.
According to the Oceana report, “Bait and Switch: How Seafood Fraud Hurts Our Oceans, Our Wallets and Our Health,” recent studies by researchers in North America and Europe found that 20 to 25 percent of the seafood products tested were fraudulently mislabeled. Fraudulent labeling in some seafood species may run as high as 70 percent.
According to Oceana, seafood labeling fraud may entail:
• Substituting one species for another without changing the label
• Including less seafood in the package than is indicated on the label
• adding too much ice to seafood in order to increase the weight;
• Shipping seafood products through different countries in order to avoid duties and tariffs.
The report states:
"A recent review found false labels on more than one-third of fish (Jacquet and Pauly 2008), while other research found one-quarter of fish tested in the U.S. and Canada were mislabeled (Wong and Hanner 2008).
Government testing also shows a pattern of mislabeling, including 37 percent of fish and 13 percent of shellfish and other seafood during a nine-year period of testing by the National Marine Fisheries Service’s (NMFS) National Seafood Inspection Laboratory from 1988-1997 (Buck 2007). The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found about a third of seafood imports were mislabeled during port inspections in 2003-2004 (Mississippi Department of Marine Resources 2007)."
According to the report, certain fish such as red snapper, wild salmon, grouper and Atlantic cod are more likely to be mislabeled. Seafood labeled "red snapper" is often, in reality, slender pinjalo, channel catfish, rockfish, tilapia, Nile perch, mahi mahi, mullet snapper, or Atlantic cod. Farmed salmon often stands in for products labeled "wild salmon," while a fish labeled "grouper" might really be channel catfish, hake, tilapia, Alaska pollock, or Nile perch. A product sold as "Atlantic cod" could be Alaska/Norwegian pollock, whiting, pollack, saithe, or escolar.
According to Oceana, seafood fraud can directly threaten human health. "Swapping one fish species for another that may be riddled with contaminants, toxins or allergens can make people sick (GAO 2009)." "When seafood is mislabeled, a broader array of potential contaminants, pathogens, and allergens may be covered up," the report states.
In one case cited by Oceana's report, 600 people in Hong Kong became severely ill after eating what they thought was Atlantic cod. It was actually Escolar, or oilfish, which often causes severe diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting.
According to Oceana, seafood fraud also undermines conservation efforts to prevent overfishing and incidental capture of at-risk species by making illegal fishing profitable. Seafood processors that do appropriately label their products can be undercut economically by importers that market mislabeled “identical” fish at much lower prices.
The Oceana report places the blame for seafood labeling fraud on the increasingly complex path products now take from the ocean to the dinner table. The group points out that seafood safety is handled by a patchwork of laws with no federal agency definitively in charge of addressing seafood fraud. While 84 percent of seafood sold in the U.S. is now imported, only 2 percent is inspected.
“We can track organic bananas back to packing stations on farms in Central and Latin America, yet consumers are given little to no information about one of the most popular foods in the United States – seafood,” Dr. Michael Hirshfield, senior vice president for North America and chief scientist for Oceana, said in a statement issued by the group. “With imports representing the vast majority of the seafood eaten in the United States, it’s more important than ever to know what we are eating and where, when and how it was caught.”