Next time you find wild-caught salmon for a too-good-to-be-true price, don’t be so sure it’s the real deal. According to a new report from the environmental group Oceana, of more than 25,000 seafood samples tested worldwide, one in five was mislabeled.
Seafood fraud has been a known global problem for years. To get a gauge on exactly how widespread it is, Oceana analyzed more than 200 peer-reviewed journal articles, public documents from governments and NGOs, mainstream media reports, and the organization’s own studies investigating seafood fraud. Eighty percent of the samples in this research came from retail outlets and restaurants, while the rest came from various points along the supply chain, such as during processing or distribution.
“Every place researchers looked for seafood fraud, they found it,” says Beth Lowell, senior campaign director at Oceana and co-author of the report. “Every study we reviewed, except for one, identified it.”
Lowell says the most commonly mislabeled fish in the U.S. are salmon, snapper, and grouper. “Oftentimes it’s a lower-value fish being subbed in for a higher-value fish,” she explains: “salmon sold as wild-caught when it’s actually farmed, Asian catfish sold as grouper, snapper sold as tilapia, or red snapper when it’s really vermilion or another more abundant type.”
Any time a cheap fish masquerades as a more expensive kind, you’re getting ripped off. But the problems can go far beyond your wallet. Fifty-eight percent of the mislabeled samples pose a human health risk, meaning you could get sick from a fish you didn’t even know you were eating. “Some of the fish we see swapped in are very susceptible to parasites or environmental toxins,” Lowell says. “Also, certain species of farmed fish are more likely to be given antibiotics and other drugs in their feed.”
One particularly problematic fish is escolar. The Food and Drug Administration warns against consuming it because it contains a natural toxin that can cause severe gastrointestinal issues. However, Oceana found more than 50 cases of escolar being sold as white tuna in U.S. sushi restaurants. Pufferfish, also inherently toxic, has been marketed as monkfish. “We even found fish that the FDA says never to eat because they are so high in mercury,” Lowell says. “For instance, king mackerel sold as grouper and tilefish sold as halibut and red snapper.”
People with seafood allergies are also at risk. “You could unknowingly be eating a species you’re allergic to,” Lowell says. Or, as is sometimes the case, you might be allergic to seafood originating from one region but not to the same species sourced elsewhere. So, for instance, if something is labeled as "Gulf-caught" but it’s actually not, you might think you’re making a safe choice, when in fact you’re consuming an allergen.
Seafood fraud can also have environmental ramifications. Oceana found that 16 percent of the mislabeled seafood were species already endangered or at risk of becoming endangered due to overfishing, bycatch, or ransacked natural habitats. Some have harvesting limits while others are entirely protected, yet poachers ignore these restrictions. Depleting a species’ population disrupts the delicate ocean ecosystem, which can have major consequences down the road.
The main reason seafood fraud is so rampant is because of its complex, opaque supply chain. “Fish are caught or raised in one place and then sent to another country for processing, another for packaging, and another for consumption,” Lowell says. “Sometimes the heads and tails will even be cut off in different places. It’s a long path from catch to plate, and the more times seafood changes hands, the more chances there are for fraud.”
Because of this lack of transparency and traceability, a distributor could be duped by its supplier. Or a retailer could be duped by its distributor. Or you could be duped by a retailer. It’s tough to tell at which point fraud has occurred. A federal government task force is tackling this issue right now, with a proposed seafood monitoring and labeling program in the works. This surely won’t nip fraud in the bud, but depending on how the rule shakes out, Lowell says it’ll be a good first step.
“Until we get full traceability and transparency, ask more about the seafood you eat, whether at the fish counter or restaurant,” she advises. “Ask the species name and where and how it was caught or raised. Those who readily supply the most information or who can field your questions are those who tend to demand more transparency from their suppliers and are less likely to mislabel.”
Also buy as close to whole fish as possible. “It’s a lot easier to swap out a filet than it is a whole fish,” Lowell says. “Also abide by the age-old line of ‘if it’s too good to be true, it probably isn’t.’ If wild salmon costs $6.99 a pound, it’s probably not wild salmon.” When shopping for processed products that contain seafood, she suggests looking for QR codes and other types of info printed on labels that reveal species and harvest details.
When retailers are continually asked tough questions, and brands that are forthcoming about the seafood they use get repeat purchases, the demand for transparency works its way up the supply chain. “Seafood fraud rips off consumers, hurts our oceans, impacts our health, and undermines fisherman and businesses that play by the rules,” Lowell says. “Because fraud is everywhere, it’s important that we get to a solution, which is tracing seafood from the boat all the way to the dinner plate.”
For now, however, it’s up to you to be diligent.