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Oceana Magazine Summer 2011: Fraudulent Fish

Oceana’s newest campaign aims to ensure that U.S. seafood is safe, legal and honestly labeled.

By Emily Fisher

Think back to the last time you bought seafood. Could you easily figure out what species it was, where it was caught and with what type of fishing gear?

If you couldn’t answer these questions, you’re not alone. And even if you thought you knew, it turns out that your tasty seafood dinner may not have been honestly presented to you – and that your wild-caught Pacific salmon actually came from a fish farm on the other side of the globe.

That’s the message behind Oceana’s new Stop Seafood Fraud campaign, which kicked off in May with a report, “Bait and Switch: How Seafood Fraud Hurts Our Oceans, Our Wallets and Our Health.” The report describes how seafood may be mislabeled as often as 25 to 70 percent of the time for fish like red snapper, wild salmon and Atlantic cod, disguising species that are less desirable, cheaper or more readily available.

At the campaign’s kickoff event at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., audience members were asked to take a seafood pop quiz. Oceana campaigners asked testers to identify skinless fillets of halibut and fluke by sight, and did the same for red snapper vs. hake and for farmed vs. wild salmon. Then they conducted a taste test between tilapia and vermilion snapper.

The result? Almost no one could tell the difference. It was a simple illustration of how easy it is to fool seafood consumers.

Therion International, a company specializing in DNA testing, recently tested more than 1,000 fish fillet samples from more than 50 cities across the country and found that about half the tested fish species was mislabeled.

As Dr. Michael Hirshfield, Oceana’s senior vice president for North America and chief scientist, told the New York Times, “If you’re ordering steak, you would never be served horse meat. But you can easily be ordering snapper and get tilapia or Vietnamese catfish.”

Seafood fraud has health consequences because fish species are sometimes swapped for another that is riddled with allergens, toxins or contaminants. And when seafood is mislabeled, it also undermines ocean conservation by invalidating the eco-friendly choices consumers think they are making. It also creates a market for illegal fishing by making it easy to launder illegally caught seafood products.

How did our seafood system become so untrustworthy?

It’s a clear case of big incentives to cheat with almost no oversight. More than 80 percent of the seafood eaten in the United States is imported, but only 2 percent is inspected and less than 1 percent  specifically for fraud. Fraud can happen at each step of the supply chain – the restaurant, the distributor or the processing and packaging phase.

And as demand for seafood consumption grows around the world, so does the financial incentive to overfish the oceans and mislabel fish as more expensive species, such as wild salmon and red snapper.

Oceana is calling on the federal government to stop seafood fraud by enforcing laws that are already supposed to protect consumers and by passing legislation that specifically addresses seafood fraud, by increasing inspections and improving coordination and information sharing among federal agencies.

Our campaigners are also pushing to the government to make sure that the seafood you buy is safe, legal and honestly labeled, by requiring traceability information – now commonly used with other foods – to clearly show when, where and how a fish is caught, from hook to plate.

“We can track organic bananas back to packing stations on farms in Central and Latin America, yet consumers are given little to no information about seafood,” said Dr. Hirshfield.

The campaign has already scored a victory. In June, the United States Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation passed the Commercial Seafood Consumer Protection Act, which directs federal agencies to better work together to stop seafood fraud. The act

also increases the number of seafood testing labs, allows the U.S. to refuse seafood imports that do not meet federal requirements and provides a system for developing a list of standardized seafood names.

In other words, this bill would make buying seafood in this country a little less, well, fishy.

 

Learn more in Oceana’s new report, “Bait and Switch: How Seafood Fraud Hurts Our Oceans, Our Wallets and Our Health,” at www.oceana.org/fraud.