1 in 5 Pieces of Seafood May Be Mislabeled, Says New Oceana Report

September 8th, 2016

Our nation boasts a shockingly diverse array of delicious seafood. From flaky North Atlantic cod to delicious gulf shrimp, Southern catfish to salmon from Alaska and the Northwest, we Americans love our fish. Each year, we eat almost 15 pounds of seafood … each. And that number is on the rise.

But when you sit down to a baked haddock, how do you know it’s haddock? Similarly, were the tilapia filets you just put into your grocery basket really tilapia? These may sound like ridiculous questions. Of course I’m eating what I think I’m eating, you say.

Think again.

An astonishing one in five of us is a victim of seafood labeling fraud, according to a report released this week. In the report “Deceptive Dishes,” Oceana, an organization devoted to protecting oceans, shares the results of its worldwide examination of more than 25,000 seafood samples. What they found: 20 percent of the seafood examined was fraudulent, either because it was swapped for a cheaper cut of fish, its origins were hidden, or it was filled out with additional ingredients to increase its weight. Oceana discovered instances of fraud in all 55 countries where investigations took place, on every continent except Antarctica.

The report—which is an update to a 2014 study (also by Oceana)—investigated twice as many seafood samples as it did two years ago. Some examples of fraud listed in the report include:

  • Asian catfish, hake, and escolar were the three types of fish most commonly substituted. Specifically, farmed Asian catfish was sold as 18 different types of higher-value fish.
  • More than half (58 percent) of the samples substituted for other seafood posed a species-specific health risk to consumers, meaning that consumers might be eating fish that could make them sick.
  • Of the 200 grouper, perch and swordfish samples tested in Italy, 82 percent were mislabeled, and almost half of the substituted fish that were sold were species that are considered threatened with extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
  • In Brazil, 55 percent of “shark” samples tested were actually largetooth sawfish, a species considered by the IUCN to be critically endangered, and for which trade is prohibited in Brazil.
  • Ninety-eight percent of the 69 bluefin tuna dishes tested in Brussels restaurants were mislabeled.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, which is quickly melting because of climate change–induced ocean warming.

What can be done to curb seafood fraud and restore confidence among the fish-eating public? In short, Oceana asserts, better tracking of fish from sea to plate and more information for consumers. Specifically, Oceana is calling on President Obama’s Task Force to require that key information follows seafood through the full supply chain: the name of the specific species caught, where and how it was caught, and whether it was farmed, for instance. This information should be shared with consumers in a clear way to instill confidence.

A few companies voluntarily do this already. Red’s Best in Massachusetts, for instance, includes a QR code on every cut of seafood it sells that allows consumers to see the American fisherman who caught it, where it was caught, and with what boat and equipment. There’s even a photo of the fisherman. Fishpeople, a line of packaged sustainable seafood products, also lets you enter a code to track pouches from “pole to plate—and “meet” the people who caught the fish.

In a globalized fish market, we’re going to need a lot more companies worldwide to make similar commitments—and governments that require that fish be traced more closely.

“Without tracking all seafood throughout the entire supply chain, consumers will continue to be cheated, hardworking, honest fishermen will be undercut, and the long-term productivity of our oceans will continue to be in jeopardy,” Oceana senior campaign director Beth Lowell said in a press release. “It’s clear that seafood fraud respects no borders.”

This article is related to: Food News, Grocery List, Living, Sustainable Seafood

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Steve HoltSteve Holt's stories about food, nutrition and food politics are found at Civil Eats,, Boston Magazine, and elsewhere. He's been featured in the Best Food Writing anthology. Follow his tweets and Instagrams @thebostonwriter.

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