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A large-scale investigation by Oceana, which describes itself as “the largest international advocacy group working solely to protect the world’s oceans,” has discovered what it calls “widespread” seafood fraud across the United States. The organization’s DNA testing found that one-third, or 33 percent, of the 1,215 fish samples collected by the Washington, D.C.-based organization from 674 retail outlets in 21 states were mislabeled, according to U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines.
“Purchasing seafood has become the ultimate guessing game for U.S. consumers,” said Beth Lowell, Oceana’s campaign director. “Whether you live in Florida or Kansas, no one is safe from seafood fraud. We need to track our seafood from boat to plate so that consumers can be more confident that the fish they purchase is safe, legal and honestly labeled.”
According to Oceana, it uncovered fraud everywhere it tested, reporting seafood mislabeling rates of 52 percent in Southern California; 49 percent in Austin and Houston; 48 percent in Boston (including testing by The Boston Globe); 39 percent in New York City; 38 percent in northern California and south Florida; 36 percent in Denver; 35 percent in Kansas City; 32 percent in Chicago; 26 percent in Washington, D.C.; 21 percent in Portland, Ore.; and 18 percent in Seattle.
The study targeted fish with regional significance as well as those found to be frequently mislabeled in previous studies, including red snapper, cod, tuna and wild salmon. Of the most commonly collected types of fish, snapper and tuna had the highest mislabeling rates across the country, at 87 and 59 percent, respectively. While 44 percent of all retail outlets visited sold mislabeled fish, sushi venues had the worst level of mislabeling, at 74 percent, followed by other restaurants, at 38 percent, and grocery stores, at 18 percent.
“Some of the fish substitutions we found are just disturbing,” noted Oceana senior scientist Dr. Kimberly Warner, the author of the report. “Apart from being cheated, many consumers are being denied the right to choose fish wisely based on health or conservations concerns.”
Among the report’s other findings:
- Mislabeling was discovered in 27 of the 46 fish types tested (59 percent).
- Just seven of the 120 red snapper samples collected nationwide were actually red snapper.
- Between one-fifth to more than one-third of the halibut, grouper, cod and Chilean seabass samples were mislabeled.
- 84 percent of the white tuna samples were actually escolar, a species that can cause serious digestive issues in some individuals, if more than a few ounces are eaten.
- Fish on the FDA’s “Do Not Eat” list for groups such as pregnant women and children because of high mercury content were sold to customers who had ordered safer fish.
- Cheaper farmed fish were substituted for wild fish.
- Overfished and vulnerable species were substituted for more sustainable catch.
“The Food and Drug Administration needs to fulfill its mandate to fight food fraud,” said John Connelly, president of the National Fisheries Institute (NFI) in Washington, in response to the Oceana study and other reports indicating seafood fraud. “That means enforcing laws that are already on the books. Calling for new laws to fight fish fraud suggests groups don’t fully understand the issue at hand. If drivers are accused of running a stop sign, you don’t simply put up another stop sign, you station a cop on the corner and start cracking down.”
“Saying there is a problem is not the same as solving the problem,” added Lisa Weddig, secretary of the Better Seafood Board, a McLean, Va.-based organization governed independently from NFI. “Our members have been aggressive in rooting out bad actors and pushing regulators to enforce laws designed to stop this type of activity.”