Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of Oceana magazine. Click here to read the original article.
Aquarium pets don’t belong in the frozen foods aisle. But that’s exactly what Oceana’s Kim Warner and Rachel Golden found last summer, during an investigation of Gulf Coast shrimp. Using DNA testing, they discovered a banded coral shrimp, Stenopus hispidus, in a bag labeled “wild salad shrimp” in the frozen foods section of a Pensacola, Florida grocery store.
“The species is actually an aquarium pet,” says Golden, a former science fellow with Oceana. “It’s usually sold in pet stores and online, so we were shocked to find this species in a bag of frozen shrimp from Vietnam.”
Golden and Warner, an Oceana senior scientist, spent 10 days traversing the Unites States’ Gulf Coast, collecting samples of shrimp from grocery stores and restaurants in 10 cities. Subsequent DNA testing revealed that a full 31 percent of the shrimp products tested were misrepresented — a form of seafood fraud.
“Seafood fraud refers to any number of ways that seafood is misrepresented, including mislabeling or misidentification of seafood,” says Beth Lowell, Oceana’s seafood fraud campaign director. “This substitution can happen at each step of the supply chain — at the restaurant, the distributor, or the processing and packaging facility. It can also occur deliberately, when high-quality seafood is swapped out for a less desirable, cheaper, or more abundant species.”
Shrimp is the most consumed seafood in the United States and the most highly traded seafood worldwide, according to Oceana, making it a prime target for seafood fraud. In 2012, 89 percent of the shrimp consumed in the U.S. was imported from other countries, according to a 2013 report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The U.S. Gulf Coast is famous for its seafood, including shrimp. “We wanted to go to a region famous for locally caught seafood in the middle of shrimp fishing season,” says Warner, “and see how this local product was marketed, sold, and also presented.” Other Oceana staff members collected additional samples from New York, Oregon, and Washington DC, to see if shrimp fraud varied around the country.
Their investigation discovered high levels of seafood fraud — DNA testing revealed that a full 30 percent of the shrimp products tested were misrepresented: either mislabeled (15 percent), misleading (10 percent) or unidentifiable or comingled with at least two different species in the same bag (5 percent). And about 75 percent of frozen grocery store bags of salad-sized shrimp that the team tested had at least two species of shrimp.
“We used a technique called DNA barcoding,” says Golden, “which tells us the exact species of the sample we collected.”
In addition to the surprising discovery of the aquarium species in a grocery store, DNA testing also identified three species of shrimp not yet known genetically to science: one in a bag of frozen, wild, salad-sized shrimp from India, comingled with a domestic Gulf species, and another in a grocery store’s prepared shrimp salad, both purchased in New York City. The third new species was located in a bag of frozen wild salad-sized shrimp from India, purchased in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Despite shrimp’s popularity, most consumers don’t know what species of shellfish they are eating: More than 40 species of shrimp are allowed to be labeled and sold as just “shrimp” in the U.S., while only seven types require a more specific name at the point of sale. Important details like whether a shrimp was wild-caught or farmed, or even where the shrimp was farmed or caught are important details that are often left off of restaurant menus and seafood labels.
“In addition to DNA testing, we wanted to understand how shrimp was being marketed and presented,” says Warner.
She and Golden surveyed how shrimp was described on 600 menus and in 27 grocery stores from the Gulf, Washington, DC, New York City, and Portland, Oregon. They looked for information that indicated if the shrimp was farm raised or wild caught, what species it was, or where, when and how it was caught.
As predicted, they found that consumers are given very little information. For example, less than 1 percent of restaurant menus revealed whether the shrimp was wild caught or farm-raised. In grocery stores, 30 percent of the products did not provide information about where the shrimp was from and 20 percent not provide details on whether the shrimp was wild caught or farm-raised.
“For Gulf fishermen, mislabeling or a lack of information can hurt their businesses as their seafood products are competing in a market of mislabeled or misrepresented shrimp ,” says Lowell. Warner and Golden found that 25 percent of shrimp samples that were labeled as wild or presumed to be wild (often called “Gulf”) were actually farm-raised shrimp. In the Gulf region, 36 percent of the shrimp tested and labeled “Gulf” were farmed-raised. The most common substitution found was farmed whiteleg shrimp, which stood in for wild caught products, including those labeled “wild,” “Gulf,” “Carolina,” “Texas,” and “rock.”
Lowell says that U.S. fishermen are required to follow certain regulations, like staying under set catch limits or using turtle-excluder devices to avoid catching and killing sea turtles. Yet, without more information available to consumers, it is nearly impossible to distinguish seafood from responsible fisheries from unsustainable options. And misrepresented seafood puts those who play by the rules at an even greater disadvantage.
Adhering to those regulations can be costly, she says, especially when fishermen then sell their wild Gulf product into a marketplace flooded with imported farmed Asian shrimp mislabeled as wild.
Oceana’s shrimp testing builds on data collected from 2010 to 2012, when Oceana conducted one of the largest seafood fraud investigations in the world to date, collecting more than 1,200 samples of finfish from 14 metropolitan areas to determine if they were honestly labeled. That investigation discovered an astonishing 33 percent of finfish samples were mislabeled, according to U.S. Food and Drug Administration guidelines.
“Consumers have a right to know where, when, and how the seafood that they purchase and eat was fished,” says Lowell. “We want to have traceability for all seafood that allows consumers and regulators to be able to trace that fish from the boat to the plate.”
In June 2014, at Oceana’s recommendation, President Obama created a dedicated task force with a commitment to combat black market seafood — including seafood fraud as well as illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. The goal of the task force is to help stop seafood fraud and illegal fishing. Oceana calls on the task force to establish comprehensive traceability requirements to ensure that critical information follows our seafood throughout the supply chain and all the way to the end consumer, confirming that it’s safe, legally caught, and honestly labeled.
Lowell says that improved traceability would also help prevent illegally caught seafood from entering the marketplace, deter human rights violations around the world, and provide consumers with the information they need to make informed, responsible seafood choices.
The president’s task force issued draft recommendations to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and seafood fraud in December of 2014.
“Oceana submitted comments to the task force on the draft recommendations,” says Lowell, “and once the final recommendations are released, we will work to ensure they are fully implemented.”