Ocean, human, economic health threatened by widespread seafood fraud

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A study conducted by Oceana, a nonprofit dedicated to assessing the health of the world’s oceans, found that seafood fraud in the United States is a poorly addressed and rampant threat to consumers and the ocean.

The report, Bait and Switch: How Seafood Fraud Hurts our Oceans, our Wallets and our Health, found that fish in Los Angeles was mislabeled more than the other areas included in the study, with 55 percent of all seafood sampled by DNA testing claiming to be a more expensive species than it really was.

Boston seafood eaters were found to be tricked 48 percent of the time, and in South Florida, fraud was affecting 21 percent of the seafood tested.

Seafood fraud is dangerous to people and to the health of ocean ecosystems. According to Oceana’s Los Angeles press release:

Seafood fraud impacts consumers’ pocketbooks and the business of honest seafood vendors and suppliers. Seafood mislabeling may also pose health risks in the form of allergens, contaminants or pathogens in substituted species. Seafood fraud threatens not only our health, but the health of our oceans, as illegally harvested or overfished species may be substituted for those that are legal and sustainable.

According to the report, seafood is among the top foods most responsible for food-borne illnesses.  Also, as certain fish contain higher concentrations of mercury, it is vitally important for high-risk individuals, like pregnant women and children, to know which fish they are consuming in order to avoid being exposed to high levels of the metal.

Particularly disturbing is that while 84 percent of the seafood consumed in the US is imported, only 2 percent is currently inspected.  This severe lack of oversight means that while being one of the largest markets in the world for selling legitimate seafood, it is also a top destination for illegally caught fish.

Obviously consumers should have the right to know where their seafood was harvested and processed before being sold in the United States. Often animals are caught somewhere in the world, sent to a country where labor is cheap for processing like gutting and cutting off the heads, frozen, then sent for secondary processing where it is de-thawed so that it can be de-boned, breaded, packaged and again frozen, and then sent to the United States where it is distributed to restaurants, grocery stores, hospitals and other institutions before reaching the mouth of the consumer.

This process is poorly monitored and by the time you order your snapper, which was found to not be the fish allowed to be labeled “snapper” according to federal guidelines 100 percent of the time in Los Angeles, no one has any idea where the unknown fish you are eating has traveled since its death.

Nine out of 10 sushi samples in restaurants in Los Angeles and Orange counties were mislabeled, and eight out of the nine sushi samples labeled as “white tuna” turned out to be escolar, a snake mackerel species that carries a health warning for causing gastrointestinal problems.

Grocery stores in Southern California were the least likely to sell mislabeled fish, with only 31 percent of samples being found to be wrong. Restaurants sold 45 percent of their fish with incorrect labels as opposed to the most likely places for you to overpay for escolar at sushi venues where 87 percent of the samples were fraudulent.

The study points to the growing worldwide demand for seafood that does not account for seasonal catches as a reason why mislabeling tactics are often used. People want their wild caught Pacific salmon all year long even though the season is only a short portion of the year. This strains overtaxed ecosystems as well as inspires industry rogues to label more readily available seafood according to demand.

Conservation efforts are largely market driven, this means consumers need to have the ability to make informed purchases for fish that are endangered to be allowed time to repopulate.

Because mislabeling maintains the appearance of a steady supply of popular fish species despite severe overfishing, the general public is unaware that the species is in serious trouble.

The Food and Drug Administration needs to step up and get a handle on mislabeled seafood. A 2 percent inspection rate is pathetic .

California State Senator Ted W. Lieu (who also sponsored the anti-hounding bill being considered now), introduced legislation that would require large restaurant chains to identify on the menu the species of fish, country where it was caught and whether it was Mother Nature or farm raised.

Really just common sense stuff that we haven’t realized we have the right to know. As the almighty Consumers, we can have whatever we want. When we want a disappearing species of fish, the market delivers even if it has to kill off the species and start labeling another as the tasty fossil. That’s extreme. Demanding to know what we’re paying for and putting in our mouths, pretty basic.

  • Tina Page

    Tina is a journalist and mother of three who's lived all her life in the South Bay of Los Angeles except for a two-year stint in the heart of Spain. She believes humans have the capacity to make this a beautiful world for all species to live, and mothers have a special charge to raise their children to enjoy, love and respect all creatures.

2 thoughts on “Ocean, human, economic health threatened by widespread seafood fraud”

  1. “Particularly disturbing is that while 84 percent of the seafood consumed in the US is imported, only 2 percent is currently inspected. This severe lack of oversight means that while being one of the largest markets in the world for selling legitimate seafood, it is also a top destination for illegally caught fish.”

    True. And unfortunately to go along with what seems to be rampant seafood fraud is the fact that contaminants are also found in abundance. As a seafood safety and testing company, we have a database of hundreds of thousands of tests for mercury in fish and have found the problem of seafood contamination to be more prevalent than the government cares to admit (further evidenced by a lawsuit filed by TIRN, Stanford and the Center for Biological Diversity demanding the FDA change its stance on acceptable mercury exposure due to fish consumption). It’s our stance that to truly know what’s in the seafood you’re consuming, it needs to be tested and the technology exists to do so quickly, accurately, cost-effectively and on a large scale. Similar to pasteurization for other food products, if the technology and know-how exists, there is no reason why the method/technology isn’t more widely adopted by the industry and government.


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