Blog Tags: Seafood Fraud
Oceana campaign director Beth Lowell dropped by the set of Dr. Oz yesterday to talk seafood fraud with the doc in a segment about mislabeled foods.
In December Oceana released its seafood fraud report for New York City which found that 39 percent of seafood tested in the area, was something other than what was advertised on the menu. The report mirrored other Oceana reports which found that seafood fraud was a widespread problem in other metropolitan areas like Boston, Los Angeles and Miami.
Click the links below for parts 2 and 3 of Beth's appearance.
Massachusetts legislators are taking a stand against seafood fraud, which includes mislabeling or substituting one type of fish for another that is cheaper, less desirable or more readily available, usually for financial gain. Oceana commends the Massachusetts Legislature for taking up the bill (H.D. 3189) and sees it as a major step toward combating the growing problem of seafood fraud.
How much do you know about seafood fraud? Take this quiz to find out!
Oceana’s initial report, which was also covered in the Times, included a number of eyebrow-raising findings. After analyzing 142 samples, Oceana found that 56 of them, or 39 percent tested in New York City, were something other than what was advertised on the menu.
It also found that 100 percent of sushi restaurants tested in the area sold mislabeled fish, that 94 percent of “white tuna” was, in fact, escolar (a fish which can cause gastrointestinal problems in some diners), and that 79 percent of red snapper was mislabeled, in one instance being switched with tilefish, which is on the FDA’s do not eat list because of its high mercury content.
Chef Tom Colicchio was not shocked by this latest round of fraud uncovered by Oceana. “This has been going on for as long as I’ve been cooking,” he says in the article. 500 chefs, from Eric Ripert to Mario Batali have signed a letter calling on Congress to end to seafood mislabeling.
The article suggests that diners can arm themselves with a baseline of seafood-related knowledge to fend off fraudulent menu items:
“If a restaurant claims to have fresh Maine diver scallops in July, it helps to know that the tightly regulated bivalves can be harvested only from December to March. (And that they are rarely taken from the sea by actual divers.) Fresh wild Alaska salmon should not be on plates in January.”
The report focused on fish that was purchased in the New York City area and subjected to DNA testing. That testing revealed, among other startling findings, that 79 percent of red snapper served in New York City restaurants and grocery stores was replaced with less expensive fish, like tilefish. The FDA warns pregnant women and young children to avoid tilefish altogether because of its high mercury content.
Similarly 94% of white tuna served at sushi restaurants was in fact escolar, a fish whose high levels of wax esthers can potentially cause diarrhea in diners.
Meanwhile the New York Times detailed Oceana's report in its Tuesday Science section, in the article "Tests Say Mislabeled Fish is a Widespread Problem":
The findings are broadly similar to those of studies Oceana has conducted in Los Angeles, Boston and Miami, where 55, 48 and 31 percent of samples, respectively, were mislabeled.
One finding that surprised the research team was that national chain supermarkets offered less mislabeled seafood than regional chains or small specialty markets. High prices were no guarantee of accurate labeling: one restaurant in the highest price range offered red snapper on its menu but, according to Oceana, was serving up lowly tilapia.
Learn more about seafood fraud and what Oceana is doing to fight it.
Today Oceana released a new report documenting the problem of widespread seafood fraud in the New York City area. A full 39 percent of seafood sold in New York City grocery stores, restaurants and sushi venues was found to be mislabeled.
Out of 142 samples Oceana conducted DNA testing on, from 81 separate businesses, 56 were found to be different species than advertised. Oftentimes cheaper fish was swapped in for more expensive species, but seafood fraud can be an issue of consumer safety as well, as discussed in the above segment aired on the NBC's Today Show this morning covering Oceana's report.
The report's key findings were:
- Small markets had much higher fraud (40 percent) than national chain grocery stores (12 percent).
- 100 percent of the 16 sushi venues tested sold mislabeled fish.
- Tilefish, on the FDA’s do-not-eat list because of its high mercury content, was substituted for red snapper and halibut in one small market.
- 94 percent of the “white tuna” was not tuna at all, but escolar, a snake mackerel that has a toxin with purgative effects for people who eat more than a small amount of the fish.
- Thirteen different types of fish were sold as “red snapper,” including tilapia, white bass, goldbanded jobfish, tilefish, porgy/seabream, ocean perch and other less valuable snappers.
The fraud could even lead consumers to unknowingly violate religious dietary restrictions, such as when kosher fish like albacore or pacific cod are replaced by non-kosher fish, like escolar and sutchi catfish, respectively.
“Everywhere we look, we find seafood fraud, and New York City is no exception,” said Beth Lowell, campaign director at Oceana. “Seafood fraud is a national problem that requires national attention. Traceability, tracking fish from boat to plate, will ensure that seafood is safe, legal and honestly labeled while preventing consumers from getting ripped off. ”
Elsewhere Oceana and others have found similar levels of fraud: in Boston 48 percent of seafood was mislabeled, in Los Angeles that figure reached 55 percent and in Miami 31 percent. Oceana is urging congress to pass the Safety and Fraud Enforcement for Seafood (SAFE Seafood) Act, H.R. 6200, introduced this summer by Reps. Edward Markey (D-MA), Barney Frank (D-MA) and Walter Jones (R-NC). The Bill would require full traceability for all seafood sold in the U.S.
Oceana’s senior vice president for North America and chief scientist Mike Hirshfield sat down with 20/20 to discuss the widespread problem of seafood fraud (skip to around 3:30 in the video). He gives a stark example of the problem.
“If you go to Los Angeles and eat red snapper everyday for the next 30 days you will never see red snapper,” he says.
Not only does seafood fraud affect consumers' pocketbooks (inferior fish are often labeled as more expensive fish and drastically marked up) but it can be dangerous as well. As ABC found in their own investigation, 86% of sushi labeled as white tuna around the country was, in fact, escolar, a fish whose high content of waxy esters can cause "intestinal distress", to put it politely. The results echo Oceana's own investigations of seafood markets and restaurants in Boston, L.A. and Miami which found the problem of fraud to be widespread.
ABC also spoke with Oceana supporter, chef and National Geographic fellow Barton Seaver.
"40,000 fish of copper river salmon were sold last year," he says. "Well, sorry, only 12,000 fish were caught in Copper River last year."
Seaver admits that even chefs of his caliber are vulnerable to the tricks of deceptive marketing, as he describes his recent experience being duped into buying inferior asian crab meat marketed as Maryland blue crab. One of the major problems, he says, is that the country imports more than 85% of its fish but the FDA inspects less than 2% of it. It's why over 500 chefs signed a letter calling for full traceability of seafood sold in the U.S. and why in July, Representatives Edward Markey (D-MA) and Barney Frank (D-MA) introduced the Safety and Fraud Enforcement for Seafood (SAFE Seafood) Act (H.R. 6200). The legislation requires that all seafood sold in the U.S. be fully traceable. Oceana is currently building support in Congress for this important bill. Show you care about what's on your plate and sign our petition.
The cuisine of Mario Batali, Rick Bayless, Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller, Jacques Pepin, Eric Ripert and Michael Symon may run the gamut from modern French to traditional Mexican, but they can all agree on one thing: It is time to end seafood fraud.
More than 500 chefs and restaurateurs have have joined Oceana's fight against seafood fraud by signing a letter penned by chef and Oceana supporter Barton Seaver, calling on congress to put an end to the deceptive and possibly dangerous practice of mislabeled seafood. It reads in part:
Recent studies have found that seafood may be mislabeled as often as 25 to 70 percent of the time for popular species like red snapper, wild salmon and Atlantic cod, disguising fish that are less desirable, cheaper or more readily available.
With about 1,700 different species of seafood from all over the world now available in the U.S., it is unrealistic to expect chefs and restaurant owners to be able to independently and accurately determine that the fish they are getting is actually the one they paid for. We should be able to tell our customers, without question, what they are eating as well as where, when and how it was caught.
Investigations by Oceana and others have revealed that consumers in several metropolitan areas are routinely served something other than what is on the menu or at the fish market. In the Boston area, seafood was mislabled 48 percent of the time, in Los Angeles 55 percent of the time, and in Miami 31 percent of the time.
But seafood fraud does more than mislead consumers, it's bad for the seafood as well. Customers may have no way of knowing whether they are eating an overexploited species or one that was caught illegally.
In July, Representatives Edward Markey (D-MA) and Barney Frank (D-MA) introduced the Safety and Fraud Enforcement for Seafood (SAFE Seafood) Act (H.R. 6200). The legislation requires full traceability for all seafood sold in the U.S. Oceana is currently building support in congrees for this important bill. Show you care about what's on your plate and sign our petition.
Sustainability-minded chef and National Geographic fellow Barton Seaver is the latest victim of seafood fraud. He admitted as much in a recent post on National Geographic's Ocean Views blog. Shopping at one of his favorite seafood markets Seaver was taken in by what he thought to be that staple of mid-Atlantic cuisine, the Maryland blue crab. As he tells it, he didn't get what he paid for:
"Back in my kitchen, the container held beautiful giant lumps of meat, larger than I have seen in decades. I was pleased and thought to myself “hey, the crabs are doing well if we are catching them this big”. I noticed a small red ring on some joints where the muscle had met the leg of the crab, a color that I was not used to seeing. I chalked it up to “maybe I haven’t ever seen crabs this big.” On I went, adding the lemon juice, mayonnaise, and a dusting of breadcrumbs. I texted a picture of the crab to my friend who works with the State of Maryland fisheries congratulating him on the conservation efforts that had obviously worked to bring crab meat this big to my table.
His response, 'Asian! The red tip to the lump gives it away.' I had been beat. Even though I had read the sign, checked the label, and smelled the product, I had been duped."
Seaver also relays how, upon closer inspection, the container attested to the fact that the meat had been pumped with preservatives as well as a water rentention agent. A recent Boston Globe investigation revealed that such chemicals, like sodium tripolyphosphate, are routinely used to plump up seafood, boosting profits for distributors who sell by the pound. Unsurprisingly, Seaver says that the quality of the product suffered as well.
"I tasted the crab and there was a lingering chemical acidity and a muted flavor. Not what I was expecting, nor what I was led to believe I was buying."
Along with U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), who earlier this week wrote a letter to the FDA demanding stricter monitoring and enforcement of seafood fraud, Seaver wants to end this deceitful and possibly dangerous practice, and asks readers to sign Oceana's petition to congress for stricter labeling and enforcement. Join the fight against seafood fraud and sign the petition!
Yesterday, in a letter to Food and Drug Administration commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg, U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) urged the agency for stricter oversight and enforcement of seafood fraud, highlighting the investigative work of Oceana, writing:
“It is unacceptable that proven fraud is occurring on such a widespread basis. Seafood fraud is not only deceptive marketing, but it can also pose serious health concerns, particularly for pregnant women seeking to limit exposure to heavy metals or individuals with serious allergies to certain types of fish.
Recent studies suggest how pervasive the problem of seafood fraud has become in the United States. Since 2011, Oceana has collected fish samples from numerous grocery stores, restaurants, and sushi venues in different metropolitan areas and has had them genetically tested to determine their composition. In Miami and Fort Lauderdale, 31 percent of the seafood tested by the group was found to be mislabeled. In Los Angeles and Orange counties, 55 percent of the seafood tested was mislabeled.”
In the video above, Oceana’s Northeast representative Gib Brogan talks with the Boston Globe about an investigation of Massachusetts restaurants, grocery stores and fish markets. Testing by the Globe revealed that 48 percent of 183 samples were not the same species of fish as advertised. Oftentimes cheaper alternatives were swapped for higher-priced fish.
But seafood fraud is not only a pocketbook issue. It can be harmful, even deadly to consumers. Starting in 2006, 282 22-pound boxes labeled “monkfish” were imported from China to the U.S. through California and distributed to wholesalers in Illinois, California and Hawaii. In fact, the boxes were filled with pufferfish, containing the deadly neurotoxin tetrodotoxin. Pufferfish can be lethal if not prepared correctly and a woman in Chicago became severely ill from eating the mislabeled fish.
It turns out many consumers have been getting soaked paying too much for scallops artificially plumped with excess water. According to a Boston Globe investigation seafood processors routinely load up the shellfish meat, which can sell for as much as $15 a pound, with water.
While scallop meat (that delicious adductor muscle that makes the animal surprisingly mobile) naturally retains about 75% water, samples taken from major chains like Trader Joe's, Target and Walmart were up to 91% water.
How they do they squeeze in all that excess water? The answer is less than appetizing. Seafood processors often resort to treating the meat with sodium tripolyphosphate and other chemical additives which boosts water retention.
As the article notes, its nearly impossible for consumers to know whether they're getting their money's worth at the register:
"There are some signs that suggest scallops may have been treated: Excess water leaches out when cooked, discolorations can appear on seafood, and the shellfish do not sear as well as they should. But it’s essentially impossible to detect when scallops are in a package or behind the seafood counter."
As Oceana campaign director Beth Lowell is quoted as saying in the article, “Businesses are advertising wild-caught, naturally raised seafood that has really been treated and consumers are being misled and paying for water they shouldn’t."
Oceana is leading the fight against seafood fraud. Mislabeled seafood can have dire consequences for at-risk species and make it difficult for seafood lovers to make eco-friendly choices about what they're eating. But this latest episode of seafood fraud shows that the consumer loses out as well when the industry is less than honest about the product it puts out.
- CEO Note: Introducing Lars “Lasse” Gustavsson, Oceana in Europe’s New Senior Vice President and Executive Director Posted Tue, October 21, 2014
- Ocean Roundup: Great Barrier Reef Health “Never Been Worse,” Coral Could Be New Substitute for Bone Grafts, and More Posted Thu, October 23, 2014
- Oceana Magazine, Dr. Pauly Column: How Do We Know How Many Fish There Are in The Sea? Posted Fri, October 17, 2014
- Bird Casualties from BP’s Gulf Spill Much Higher than Original Estimates Posted Tue, October 21, 2014
- On World Food Day, A Look at Six of The Most Commonly Mislabeled Seafood Options Posted Thu, October 16, 2014