Updated on April 21, 2016
When you buy seafood, do you actually get what you order? This is the question scientists from the conservation group, Oceana, have been asking. Over the past couple of years they have been investigating seafood fraud – or the mislabeling of seafood species – in major cities around the US. They have found that a high percentage (up to 55 percent) of seafood in Boston, Miami, and Los Angeles, is often sold as something it is not.
This past summer, Oceana scientists asked whether seafood mislabeling also occurs in New York City – a city known for some on the finest food in the world. Since the late 1980’s, journalists have reported the mislabeling of seafood species several times in New York City. The scientist wondered if the negative media attention has reduced the occurrence of seafood fraud.
To investigate this, they collected fish samples from restaurants, sushi bars, and grocery stores in Manhattan and the surrounding area. In total, they collected 142 fish samples from 13 different species (including cod, snapper, tuna, and salmon). They sent the samples to scientific laboratories for DNA testing to determine the “true” identity of the species.
The DNA testing revealed that seafood mislabeling still occurs in New York City. And quite often! 39 percent of the fish samples were something different than what they were sold as. The scientists found that in many cases, expensive, high quality fish were substituted with cheaper, less desirable fish. And in some cases, the fish were substituted with species that could pose a health risk! For instance, tilefish – a fish on the “DO NOT EAT” list for pregnant women and young children due to its very high mercury levels – was found posing for both red snapper and halibut. And the most common mislabeled fish, “white tuna”, was found to really be escolar or snake mackerel in 16 of the 17 fish samples from sushi venues. Escolar contains a toxin that can cause severe gastrointestinal problems if you eat more than a few ounces.
The highly-desired red snapper was the second most common mislabeled fish. 13 different species were found substituting for this species, including other closely related snappers, as well as completely unrelated species like tilapia. Wild salmon was also frequently mislabeled, often as the highly unsustainable farmed Atlantic salmon.
The high level of seafood fraud occurring in cities around the US means seafood buyers cannot be sure what they are getting. Many consumers are being ripped off. And those who try to choose sustainable and healthy seafood choices may unknowingly eat overfished species or fish with high levels of mercury.
It is impossible to know where in the long journey from the sea to your plate, seafood mislabeling occurs. But national chain grocery stores had considerably lower levels of seafood mislabeling than local grocery stores; this could mean the chain stores have better ways for accounting for where their fish actually come from and what it is. To prevent the fraudulent mislabeling of seafood species, better traceability of our seafood is needed.
The US senate is currently considering several bills which would increase inspections of seafood and help keep illegal seafood out of US markets. To ensure the seafood you buy is safe, legal, and what you pay for, you can sign this petition!
Elizabeth Brown is a research scientist at Blue Ocean Institute.