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.
The Senate took an important step forward last month in the fight against illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, also known as pirate fishing, by passing the Pirate Fishing Elimination Act (S. 1980) through the Commerce Committee.
The bill implements the Agreement on Port State Measures to Prevent, Deter, and Eliminate Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing (Agreement), which the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) adopted in November 2009 and, if ratified, would be the first binding international agreement to specifically combat illegal fishing. The bipartisan bill easily passed the committee and now moves to the Senate floor for consideration.
Pirate fishing is a serious problem that threatens the oceans, honest fishermen and seafood consumers alike. Pirate fishers skirt the law by using illegal gear, fishing in closed areas or during prohibited times, and catching threatened or endangered species. Because this fishing goes unregulated and unreported, it is difficult to assess its true impact on our oceans.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimates that pirate fishing leads to global economic losses between $10-23 billion each year and accounts for up to 40 percent of the catch in certain fisheries. One of the easiest ways to address this problem is to close our ports to illegal fishing vessels and help ensure that illegal fish are kept out of our markets.
The bill would accomplish these goals by establishing specific requirements for port entry. In particular, it specifies minimum standards for dockside inspections, requires that nations designate specific ports to which foreign vessels may seek entry and requires that nations share information about violators. If any vessel is known to have or is suspected of pirate fishing, a nation must deny that vessel port entry. The bill also expressly makes the mislabeling and misidentification of fish or fish products illegal.
S. 1980 is a good first step toward addressing illegal fishing, and Oceana commends the Senate Commerce Committee for moving it forward. While Congress is now in recess until September, we hope that both the House and Senate will use the short legislative session in the fall to move this important bill to finally give the U.S. the tools it needs to fight pirate fishing and ensure that illegally-caught fish do not enter our market.
How would you feel if you found out the red snapper on your plate wasn’t red snapper at all, but instead something illegally fished or potentially unhealthy? A new Oceana study found that 31% of seafood we tested in South Florida is mislabeled, keeping consumers in the dark about what they’re really eating.
Our campaigners used DNA testing on seafood samples from grocery stores, restaurants, and sushi venues in the Miami/Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach areas. We’ve conducted studies like this in other cities, and the results from Los Angeles and Boston were even more striking—55% of seafood in L.A. was mislabeled and 48% in Boston.
But just because the numbers are lower in South Florida doesn’t mean that seafood fraud is any more acceptable. Some of the fish being served under a different name pose risks to health and sustainability. The study found that king mackerel, a high mercury fish with a health warning for sensitive groups, was being marketed as ‘grouper.’
Sushi restaurants were the biggest offenders, with 58% of samples found to be mislabeled. All the samples of white tuna collected from sushi vendors were actually escolar, a fish species that can make people sick.
The large amount of seafood coming into the U.S. market can make it difficult to trace each item to its source. Oceana is calling on the federal government to ensure that the seafood we find in our markets is safe, legal, and honestly labeled. By implementing a traceability system, consumers can make informed decisions about what they put on their plate.
Sign the petition to fight seafood fraud and ensure you’re getting what you order.
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.
We have finally made it -- Last night Oceana’s new Los Angeles seafood fraud report was featured on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Ever-angry Lewis Black responded to the report: “Snapper, tilapia, who gives a S#@*? That’s what the ketchup’s for!”
Well, not quite the message we were going for with the report, but pretty funny nonetheless.
With the help of sustainable seafood guides such as Seafood Watch, we can make informed decisions about what type of seafood to buy based on mercury levels, the type of fishing gear used, and the health of the fishery.
But those guides are undermined if the fish itself is mislabeled. Oceana recently uncovered through DNA testing that in Los Angeles County, 55% of commonly swapped seafood was indeed labeled incorrectly.
This means that we may only be getting the fish we ordered half the time. Seafood fraud is unfair to consumers who may be faced with health risks from consuming seafood with higher contaminant levels, or who are paying more for a less desirable substitute. We should be empowered to consume seafood we think is best for our health and we have the right to be served the seafood we are paying for.
The frustrating part is that there is little oversight on the long journey seafood takes from the ocean to our plate -- from transport to processing, to labeling, to shipping, and finally to grocery stores or restaurants. This extensive journey with little oversight and labeling leaves plenty of room for key information to be lost and for fraud to occur.
So what can be done about seafood fraud?
California is taking a step forward to begin tackling this problem at the state level through new legislation. Senator Ted Lieu introduced Senate Bill 1486, sponsored by Oceana, to require labeling of seafood at large chain restaurants (with 19 or more facilities).
If the bill passes and is signed into law by Governor Brown, chain restaurants will be required to provide information on seafood items ordered including what the species of seafood is; in what country it was caught; and whether it is farmed or wild-caught. So rather than just seeing “Fish sandwich” on the menu, customers will have the information needed to make informed decisions based on health, sustainability, and buying local.
The Senate Health Committee passed the bill at the end of the day yesterday. A huge thanks to the more than 5,000 Oceana Wavemakers in California who weighed in support of this bill with their legislators!
Despite trying to make the best eco-conscious decision, we are being swindled and deceived. Not only is it unjust to consumers, but to the environment and to those fishermen using more responsible practices.
We’ll keep you posted as this legislation progresses, and thanks again for your support.
Something’s fishy in Los Angeles.
That’s according to our new report, which found widespread seafood mislabeling in the LA-area. DNA testing confirms that 55 percent of the seafood our campaigners sampled was mislabeled based on federal law.
In May and December of 2011, Oceana staff and supporters collected 119 seafood samples from grocery stores, restaurants and sushi venues in Los Angeles and Orange counties. The targeted species included those that were found to be mislabeled in previous studies as well as those with regional significance such as wild salmon, Dover or other regional soles, red snapper, yellowtail and white tuna.
Among the report’s other key findings include:
Can you trust that the seafood you bought is actually what it claims to be? In a new report titled, “Fishy Business: Do You Know What You Are Really Eating?” Oceana explains how seafood mislabeling and species substitution can have dangerous consequences for public health and ocean ecosystems.
Seafood fraud is more common than people think. Seafood takes a long journey from the ocean to your plate, with plenty of opportunities for fishermen and merchants to fudge the truth—and very little in the way to stop them.
Some expensive fish are switched out for more common varieties. Seafood may be weighted down with ice, meaning you’re paying for more than what you get. And fish caught unsustainably may be falsely labeled as an eco-friendly option, which means even careful consumers could still be funding unsustainable fishing.
The FDA only inspects 2% of imported seafood, but up to 70% of seafood may be mislabeled in some manner. Obviously, the FDA needs to make seafood a priority. “Consumers have a right to know what they are eating and where it came from. Yet, frankly, customers are being ripped off,” said Oceana’s Beth Lowell. “Fraud of any kind is wrong, illegal and must be stopped.”
Eating dinner shouldn’t be a guessing game. Today, the House is considering the FDA’s 2013 budget, and we’re calling on them to pay attention to seafood.