The New 'Bait and Switch' on Seafood

04/01/2015 04:36 pm ET | Updated Jun 01, 2015

For years sushi fanatics and fish enthusiasts could rest easy their carp was mercury-free, white-tuna top-grade, and their organic fish as fresh and USDA-certified as its farm-to-table brethren.

Yet, it turns out the les fruits de mer, or "the fruits of the sea," are not what they seem.

Seafood fraud is booming, and it ranges from mislabeling our favorite menu items to overcharging customers, to poor oversight of the pesticides that go into our fish. The recent AP report on "slave fishing" is only the tip of the iceberg for an industry plagued by fraud, deception, and potential health risk.

The stakes are so high that an essential part of the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership is a commitment to clamp down on illegal fishing and harmful subsidies. Last month, the Obama administration announced a new raft of measures aimed at curbing black-market fishing, among them a central database to track which fishermen caught which fish, when, where, and so forth.

But more action is required.

Seafood fraud takes several forms, but essentially boils down to one thing: the label does not accurately describe the fish. There's the seemingly benign swapping of wild fish with farmed. Take the salmon at your favorite restaurant -- often you're paying twice as much as you should, according to a 2011 study published in Food Research International, which found over one-third of all salmon sold in Washington State was mislabeled.

Then there's the swapping of species. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which carries out a voluntary seafood inspection program, has found a national seafood fraud rate of 40 percent. A case in point is when restaurants sell "white tuna," but substitute it with escolar, also known as the 'Ex-Lax fish,' (the name should require no explanation). A similar study by Oceana in 2013, whereby 1,200 samples were taken from restaurants and fish markets, found that white tuna was the most substituted. Of 66 samples mostly from sushi restaurants, 84 percent were Ex-Lax Fish.

Another type of bait and switch is perfectly legal: giving fish less than fishy-sounding names. The FDA updates a list of acceptable names for seafood annually and some of the actual names may surprise you. Orange roughy, to take one example, was originally named 'slimehead.'

Seafood mislabeling is made worse by the industry's lack of transparency. The fish must be labeled in accordance with the FDA's Seafood List. But once a fish is filleted, even the most seasoned chefs have a hard time identifying the species. Who's to know how it was caught, where it came from, or how it was processed? DNA barcoding only gets us the species. And an audit in 2009 by the Government Accountability Office claims the FDA inspects less than 2% of imported seafood.

But price gouging and mislabeling are only a symptom of a larger problem. What's most serious is the health risk posed by certain farmed fish. Consider that the U.S. imports up to 90 percent of its seafood, half of it from aquaculture, of which China accounts for nearly two-thirds of the global market. If your fish came with a "Made in China" label, would you eat it? A report in 2010 found traces of Cypermethrin, a pesticide used to kill lice, in farmed salmon sold in the UK.

The reporting of widespread seafood fraud prompted the FDA to conduct an investigation against wholesale distributors. They found 15% of the fish were improperly labeled. The USDA is also looking at standards for organic farmed fish. But many consumer groups are unhappy with the recommended guidelines because they don't meet the strict standards of other organic foods. The regulators are often reactive, not proactive. After two Chicago diners nearly died from bad fish in 2007, FDA investigators used forensic DNA barcoding to discover that the supposed monkfish on menus was actually the highly toxic puffer fish, resulting in the recall of nearly 300 cases of seafood.

But the fishing industry remains an unregulated Wild West. So how can consumers protect themselves against eating tainted or mislabeled fish? As activists led a revolution in dairy that demanded milk without added steroids, it's time we do the same for seafood transparency. Demand to know how and where your seafood is caught. Ask your lawmakers to require stiffer penalties for mislabeling. And show your support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which will go a long way to promote sustainable fisheries and combat illegal seafood fraud.

In the meantime, be careful what goes on your plate. Get to know your local fishmongers, restaurants, and chefs. Just like fruit, fish have seasons. Stay informed and inquire if the fishery is sustainable or overexploited. Don't fall for the "bait and switch."


Ghislaine Maxwell is the Founder of The TerraMar Project, an ocean conservation nonprofit dedicated to building a global community to give a voice to the seas.