When you order beef from a butcher and he hands you chicken, you know something's screwy. But if you order flounder at a restaurant, would you be able to tell if your waiter brought you tilapia? Maybe, maybe not.
Yet, it happens every day, and seafood lovers across the U.S. are being scammed into eating fish that isn't what they paid for and, worse, could be putting their health at risk, according to a new report, which found that 33 percent of seafood samples purchased nationwide were labeled as another species, a practice that is illegal per Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines.
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This new report is a result of two years' worth of DNA tests conducted on fish samples purchased at grocery stores, restaurants, and sushi bars in major cities across the U.S. In New York City, 39 percent of seafood sold was mislabeled. Southern Californians aren't faring any better; 52 percent of samples sold there were mislabeled. And in Boston, Oceana's tests were supplemented with tests from The Boston Globe, revealing that 48 percent of samples were passed off as something else.
In each of these cases, the nonprofit released individual reports that garnered a good amount of media attention, says Beth Lowell, campaign director at Oceana. "The optimist in me would like to think that the reports and the coverage they generated would lead to a reduction over time, but that's not what we're seeing."
Here's a snapshot of what you're buying when you think you're ordering fish:
• Red snapper is the most mislabeled fish on the market, with 87 percent of red snapper samples turning out to be something else. Oceana found as many as nine different fish varieties being subbed for it, including one species, tilefish, that is on the FDA's list of fish that pregnant women and children shouldn't eat because of excessively high mercury levels. Red snapper was so prone to fraud that only seven of the 120 "red snapper" samples purchased nationwide actually turned out to be red snapper.
• White tuna came in as the second most mislabeled fish. 84 percent of samples were being subbed with something called escolar, a species of snake mackerel that can cause acute gastrointestinal problems, and other species of tuna were mislabeled 59 percent of the time. Tuna substitutions were particularly common at sushi restaurants, Lowell says.
• Sushi restuaurants were by far the most culpable. In New York and in Chicago, every sushi restaurant visited sold at least one mislabeled fish, and in Austin, Texas, every sushi sample purchased was labeled incorrectly.
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Other fraud-ridden seafood offerings included substitutions for halibut, sole, grouper, and striped bass, and with restaurants selling farmed Atlantic salmon that was advertised as wild Alaskan. Farmed salmon can be full of industrial contaminants, pesticides, and antibiotics, while wild Alaskan salmon is much cleaner and actually has higher levels of vitamin D (find out The Truth about Salmon to learn more about why this swap is putting your health at risk).
In most cases, the seafood was being replaced with cheaper, more abundant fish, even at high-end restaurants. So not only is your health in jeopardy, but you're paying more for a cheaper product, too.
It's not an easy problem to fix, Lowell says, due in part to the patchwork of government agencies charged with regulating seafood in a country where more than 90 percent of the seafood that's consumed is imported and, of that, less than 2 percent gets inspected.
Add to that a complex supply chain, wherein, for example, American catfish can get shipped to China for processing and then sent back to the U.S. to be sold. At any point along the chain, from the fishing boat to the processing plant to the wholesaler or distributor, mislabeling or substitutions can occur, she says.
"When you look at what's required of other foods, whether it's meat or produce, seafood has the fewest restrictions attached to it, yet it's one of the few food items that can cause health issues," says Lowell.
From the consumer's perspective, one variety of seafood isn't always as distinguishable from another as is, say, chicken from beef or a white potato from a sweet potato. So how can you avoid seafood fraud without having to turn into a walking seafood encyclopedia?
• Go big or go local. Large national chains, such as Whole Foods, had fewer problems with seafood fraud than smaller chains and independent groceries, Lowell says, because most of the big players have internal auditing procedures designed to prevent it. At the other extreme, if you live in a coastal area, visit your local farmer's market or find a local seafood buying club that allows you direct access to the fisherman who knows what he or she caught and can tell you everything about it.
• Buy certified. There are a few programs that certify fisheries as sustainable, such as the Marine Stewardship Council, or certify that seafood comes from a particular state or region, such as the Gulf Wild or Rhode Island Trace & Trust. Such certifications can help ensure that you're getting what you pay for. Lowell says these programs aren't specifically designed to prevent fraud, but the fishermen and processors who are certified by them operate under more ethical standards and aren't likely to mislead you.
• Don't order the fish special. Oceana found that 38 percent of seafood samples purchased at regular restaurants and a whopping 74 percent from sushi restaurants were mislabeled. You can find a chef who cares about serving you sustainable seafood (that you ordered) through the Fish2Fork certification program, but if you aren't sure how committed your favorite restaurant's chef is to accurate seafood labeling, stick with a land-based or vegetarian protein when you eat out.