March 6, 2013

Mislabeled Seafood: More than Overpaying for Fraudulent Fish

Jillian Fry

Jillian Fry

Project Director, Public Health & Sustainable Aquaculture Project

Center for a Livable Future

seafood fillets

Is your seafood properly labeled?

A report released last month by Oceana, an ocean conservation group, revealed that a third of seafood sampled in the U.S. was mislabeled. This story caught my eye because of the potential effects of seafood mislabeling on human health, fish populations, and the environment.

Oceana conducted the largest study to date of seafood labeling in the U.S., analyzing DNA from 1,215 fish samples collected from 15 cities. The study was not designed to determine whether the inaccurate information presented to consumers was deliberate or where along the supply chain, the fish became misrepresented (i.e., when a fishing boat lands, during export/import, when it is sold to restaurants or stores, or by the restaurant or store themselves). In general, less desirable fish were passed off as more desirable (and valuable) species. The report was widely covered in the press, including the New York Times, Washington Post, and Fox News, and Oceana concluded that more oversight and regulation is needed by the FDA to make sure seafood is adequately inspected and accurately labeled.

Many people are interested in the study because consumers are being duped by fraudulent fish, but other impacts of mislabeled seafood are far more worrisome. Certain fish carry advisories, especially for pregnant women and young children, to limit or avoid due to contamination of heavy metals or chemicals. Also, the manner in which seafood gets to your plate, whether it is wild-caught or farm-raised, has important ecological implications. When purchasing wild-caught fish, consumers should seek species known to be from well-managed fisheries to avoid overfishing concerns. In the case of farm-raised fish, it should be from an operation that avoids use of chemicals, antibiotics, high densities of fish, and feed made mostly from small fish caught in the ocean (this contributes to overfishing). In addition, choosing fish lower on the food chain reduces contamination risk and overfishing concerns. But how is a consumer supposed to know which fish are safe, healthy, and ecologically sound?

A quick Google search reveals numerous guides created to help consumers make choices about seafood, including guides from Monterey Bay Aquarium, Blue Ocean Institute, Natural Resources Defense Council, Food and Water Watch, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). But efforts to educate consumers about safe and environmentally sustainable fish have a reduced impact if consumers cannot rely on accurately labeled seafood. In fact, the report found fish with health advisories being sold as fish with no advisories (e.g., tilefish as red snapper and halibut, king mackerel as grouper, and escolar* as white tuna), farmed fish sold as wild-caught (e.g., farmed tilapia as red snapper), and fish known to be overfished as a non-vulnerable species (e.g., Atlantic halibut as Pacific halibut).

Seafood guides are not created just to protect individuals’ health and help consumers feel better about their purchases; an additional purpose is to shift demand and therefore change commercial fishing and aquaculture practices. But, if producers can pass off their product as a fish known to be safe and ecologically sustainable, there is little incentive to change practices due to market forces. This also puts honest wild-caught fishers and fish farmers at a disadvantage. To increase demand for fish that are safe and caught or produced sustainably, we need to know what we are eating and where it comes from, and that is why Oceana’s recommendations for better oversight and regulation of seafood by FDA is so important.

* The sale of escolar is not advised by the FDA and is banned in other countries due to serious digestive effects for some people.

Photo: Chris Stevens, 2013.

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