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!
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 FDAâs 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 âwhite tunaâ 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 âred snapper,â 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.
âEverywhere we look, we find seafood fraud, and New York City is no exception,â said Beth Lowell, campaign director at Oceana. âSeafood 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. â
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.
A year after Boston Globe investigative reporters revealed that the fish on the menu at many Massachusetts restaurants often had little relation to what ended up on the plate, they went back for seconds. As it turns out many of the same restaurants originally cited for selling mislabeled fish are still up to their old tricks.
Cheaper tilapia was often marked up and sold as more expensive red snapper or albacore. Frozen Pacific cod was similarly marked up and sold as fresh, more expensive Atlantic cod. Not only is the consumer cheated in such instances, but there remains the very real concern about food safety.
As the Globe article notes:
âMuch of the substitution occurs with imported fish, which now makes up about 91 percent of the seafood Americans consume. Disease outbreaks linked to imported fish have increased in recent years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, making it more urgent to better regulate the supply chain.â
One of the more common substitutions cited in the article is that of escolar masquerading as white tuna. Escolar has earned the unfortunate moniker âthe ex-lax fishâ due to the rather unpleasant gastrointestinal effects associated with its consumption.
Oceana campaign director Beth Lowell was quoted in the article decrying the practice.
âThe public should be frustrated. How can we trust the food we eat when we canât even trust basic information on the label or a menu?â
Oceana senior vice president for North America and chief scientist Mike Hirshfield recently sat down with 20/20 to discuss the widespread problem of seafood fraud, telling ABC:
âI would be astonished if anyone buying white tuna or super white tuna at a sushi restaurant got anything other than escolar.â
If you care about what ends up on your plate sign our petition.
Oceanaâs 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.
âIf you go to Los Angeles and eat red snapper everyday for the next 30 days you will never see red snapper,â 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.
How would you feel if you found out the red snapper on your plate wasnât 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 theyâre 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. Weâve conducted studies like this in other cities, and the results from Los Angeles and Boston were even more strikingâ55% of seafood in L.A. was mislabeled and 48% in Boston.
But just because the numbers are lower in South Florida doesnât 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 âgrouper.â
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 youâre getting what you order.