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Earlier this week, Washington State Governor Jay Inslee signed into law House Bill 1200 (HB 1200), which will begin to tackle seafood fraud throughout the state. Seafood fraud switches out the fish consumers intend to purchase with fish that is cheaper, less sustainable, or even dangerous. Oceana’s recent seafood fraud report found that 18 percent of fish sampled and sold in Seattle, WA, was mislabeled. And Washington’s results were better than most – our testing showed that fully one-third of seafood in restaurants and grocery stores throughout the country is mislabeled. Among specific cities and regions of the country, the numbers get even worse: 38 percent of Miami samples were mislabeled, 39 percent of New York City samples were mislabeled, and an incredible 52 percent of samples we tested in Southern California were not what they were labeled.
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.
Andy Sharpless is the CEO of Oceana.
Oceana’s new Seafood Fraud campaign kicked off Wednesday with an event at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. As the Washington Post reported, it wasn’t just a press conference; it was also a seafood pop quiz.
Our campaigners asked audience members 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? While a few fish-savvy folks passed the tests, many people couldn’t tell the difference, which is a simple illustration of how easy it is to fool seafood consumers.
That’s one of the key points of our new report, “Bait and Switch,” which explains how consumers are frequently served a completely different fish species than the one they paid for. Seafood may be mislabeled as often as 25 to 70 percent of the time for fish such as red snapper, wild salmon and Atlantic cod, according to recent studies.