By Pete Brannen
Before you can change the national conversation on the reliability and safety of the country’s food supply, first you need to figure out how you’re going to pull it off.
Oceana senior scientist Kim Warner sought to find the perfect fish testing kit back in 2010—one that could be sent through the mail to Oceana supporters around the country, one that was self-explanatory, and one that would safely preserve seafood at low cost for DNA testing. Through trial and error, Warner discovered that sending fish preserved in ethanol was considered hazardous by the postal service and that sending thousands of coolers to Oceana supporters to collect and ship frozen samples was simply impractical.
“Though it was considered,” said Warner, laughing.
After settling on a seafood preservation method using non-toxic silica drying beads to preserve the samples at room temperature, the second dilemma was figuring out who would actually volunteer to go through with the time-consuming task of collecting, labeling and shipping fish. While Oceana staff combed the country, discreetly stuffing seafood samples in their purses at restaurants and bringing takeout orders back to makeshift laboratories set up in hotel rooms, more than 300 Oceana supporters across the country heeded the call as well.
“We didn’t think we were going to get hardly anybody to volunteer,” said Beth Lowell, Oceana’s seafood fraud campaign director. “It was amazing how many people ended up participating.”
Three years later, Oceana released its national seafood fraud report, and blew the lid off the national problem of seafood fraud.
In February, it was difficult to open a newspaper or turn on the television withouthearing about the widespread mislabelingand deception in the seafood industry.
Fully one-third of the more than 1,200 samples across 21 states tested by Oceana staff and volunteers were mislabeled. Consumers from Miami to Seattle and everywhere in between (Kansas City, Austin, Denver and Chicago) were being sold fraudulently labeled fish. Of the 118 sushi venues Oceana sampled, 95 percent sold mislabeled fish. For some individual fish, the rate of mislabeling was almost unbelievable.
“Out of 120 samples we tested of fish labeled ‘red snapper’ only seven were actually red snapper,” said Lowell. “It’s just alarming. It was hard for us to find an honestly labeled red snapper anywhere in the country no matter how hard we tried.”
This, Lowell and Warner explained, hurts the red snapper fisherman who has to sell this scarce product in a market flooded with fraudulent inventory, but it also hits consumers as well. With no way to verify the origin of a fillet—outside of the kind of resource-intensive effort undertaken by Oceana—there is little to stop an unscrupulous vendor from marking up less valuable fish.
For salmon alone, one estimate holds that consumers are overspending by $7 million per year on farmed salmon marketed and sold as the wild variety.
“This issue is great at connecting people with the oceans because while not everyone is interested in conservation, nobody likes being ripped off,” said Lowell.
But perhaps even more than seafood fraud’s economic implications, the media latched on to the troubling consumer safety issues. There were the disconcerting revelations—84 percent of white tuna samples tested were actually escolar, a fish whose high content of indigestible wax esters can cause extremely unpleasant intestinal symptoms—and then there were the downright dangerous ones.
“From a health standpoint I found it really troubling that king mackerel was sold as grouper in Florida and tilefish as halibut and red snapper in New York,” said Warner. King mackerel and tilefish are on the FDA’s do-not-eat list for sensitive groups like pregnant or nursing women as well as young children.
“There are only four types of fish on [theFDA’s] list and we found two of them disguised as healthier choices!” added Lowell.
But somewhat buried in the media frenzy was the fact that seafood fraud represents a serious conservation issue as well. Every year billions of dollars’ worth of fish are caught illegally worldwide. This can include anything from fish caught outside of quota limits, to fish caught with destructive gear, to fish caught in protected habitat, or all of the above. With some of the least restrictive import controls for seafood in the world, the United States is a likely target market for illegal fishermen looking to launder their illicit catch.
“If you’re fishing illegally, you don’t care if you killed 75 sea turtles because you’re not following the law anyways,” said Lowell.
But with the release of the National Seafood Fraud Report, the conversation about US seafood has changed. Now the effort turns towards correcting a broken system. Soon after the release of Oceana’s Boston report in 2011 and a coincident investigation by The Boston Globe into mislabeling in the greater Boston area, Massachusetts Congressman and newly elected senator Ed Markey called Oceana saying that he intended to introduce a billin the House of Representatives to stop seafood fraud. There are now two such bills requiring traceability for all seafood sold in the United States working their way through Congress: Rep. Markey’s SAFESeafood Act and its companion in the Senate introduced by Senator Mark Begich of Alaska. Oceana is working on Capitol Hill and beyond to build support and secure their passage.
“Everyone knows about seafood fraud now and that’s because of Oceana,” said Lowell. “We’ve changed the playing field on this issue.”