Imagine yourself at a restaurant ready to order your favorite dish and being told by your server that there is a one in three chance you will not receive the same item that is on the menu. It might be the real thing... or it could be a completely different food in disguise. Would you order it anyway? Most consumers would probably say no because when you eat at a restaurant or purchase food at a grocery store you expect to get exactly what you paid for. Unfortunately, this may not be the case for the seafood you order in America, according to a new nationwide study released today by Oceana that found high levels of seafood fraud at restaurants and grocery stores across the country.
Oceana's study tested more than 1,200 seafood samples through DNA analysis in Seattle, Denver, Chicago, Washington, D.C. and other major cities, and found that 33 percent of seafood tested was mislabeled, according to Food and Drug Administration guidelines. In some cities the amount of fraud found was even higher than the national average. In Austin and Houston for example, 49 percent of the samples were fraudulently labeled. In Boston (including testing done by the Boston Globe) the mislabeling rate was 48 percent. And in Southern California, more than half the seafood (52 percent) was mislabeled!
Of all the places Oceana tested, sushi joints were the biggest culprits, with a national mislabeling rate of 74 percent. The most common type of sushi fraud was the substitution of escolar for white tuna, which occurred 84 percent of the time. Escolar, nicknamed the "ex-lax" fish, is a snake mackerel and not actually a tuna at all, and can cause serious digestive issues for some people who eat more than a few ounces. The FDA warns against eating this fish in large portions and it is even outright banned in Italy and Japan. But avoiding escolar is nearly impossible if you are unaware that it is actually being served.
Generally with seafood fraud, desirable and more expensive species like snapper are substituted for cheaper, more abundant fish such as tilapia. It can happen during shipping, processing, in grocery stores and restaurants or anywhere in between on the seafood supply chain. Wherever it happens though, consumers and our oceans ultimately pay the price. Seafood fraud compromises our ability to make healthy and conservation-friendly seafood choices, while also hurting our wallets.
So what is the solution to seafood fraud? Simply put -- traceability, or tracking our fish from boat to plate. More than 90 percent of the seafood we eat in America is imported and less than 1 percent is tested by the FDA for fraud. It may seem like a daunting task to monitor it all, but it really should not be. While some voluntary seafood traceability programs already exist in the U.S., tracking our seafood should be the norm, not a rare occurrence. We must demand that all seafood sold in the U.S. is traced from boat to plate, ensuring that it is safe, legal and honestly labeled. While U.S. fishermen provide much of this information at the dock, like where, when and how a fish was caught, little to none of it follows the fish throughout the rest of the supply chain. The technology for this kind of traceability already exists and the federal government simply needs to make it a mandate.
Consumers can also take steps on their own to stop seafood fraud. They should start by asking questions -- what kind of fish are they being served, is it wild or farmed-raised, and where and how was it caught. Buy seafood that is traceable and support the voluntary programs that are already in place. Check the price. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. And finally, when possible, purchase the whole fish. Species are easier to identify this way and seafood fraud is much harder to pull off if the fish is not already filleted and processed.
"Eat more fish!" is the common cry we've all heard from our doctors over the years and there's a lot of truth behind it. Wild seafood is healthier than other forms of animal protein. It's better for the environment. It's more cost effective to produce. But the seafood we eat must be honestly labeled so we can make informed decisions -- for our own personal health and for the sake of the oceans. We would not stand for beef or chicken being swapped for other forms of meat one-third of the time and we should not stand for the same being done with our seafood.