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.
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!
Kinsey is best known for her role as the tightly-wound head of accounting on “The Office,” and she also appeared in a video for Oceana’s sea turtle campaign alongside Rachael Harris (“The Hangover.) Kinsey will be joined by sustainable chef and author Barton Seaver and Oceana campaign director Beth Lowell. Their stops will include a briefing on Capitol Hill and a reception at National Aquarium.
Oceana has found mislabeling of nearly one in five fish fillets sampled in Boston-area supermarkets, as well as the mislabeling of more than half of the seafood sampled in the Los Angeles-area. Oceana is calling on the federal government to make combating seafood fraud a priority as well as for traceability of seafood sold in the United States.