Have you eaten red snapper lately? Odds are that if you think you have, you actually probably haven’t, since 87 percent of red snapper available in markets and restaurants is mislabeled. This was one of the major discoveries uncovered by a 2010 to 2012 seafood fraud investigation conducted by Oceana, in which the organization collected 1,215 seafood samples from 674 retail outlets in 21 states to determine if they were honestly labeled. After performing DNA testing on the samples, Oceana concluded that one third of the samples was mislabeled, with the worst examples being red snapper and tuna, which was 59 percent mislabeled.
Those falsely presenting fish do so because it can be a simple way to save money and meet the needs for a particular type of fish. For example, by labeling cheap tilapia as more costly red snapper, fishers and retailers can save money for providing the same product (at least according to them), even if they do not have the means of fishing the more expensive fish. This is easy for them, too, since many fileted fish can only be identified on a molecular level.
One of the biggest ways in which this affects people is by simply ripping them off. One in three seafood consumers are not getting what they paid for. In addition, substituting one fish species for another can expose consumers to particular toxins that they would otherwise try to avoid. For example, king mackerel contains notably high levels of mercury, and using it to replace a fish species that does not have mercury can harm the consumer.
In marine conservation, falsely presenting the availability of particular types of fish can give a distorted sense of the market. As a result, we perceive the mislabeled fish as being abundant because they are found everywhere, even when they are endangered. This can contribute to overfishing of both the labeled and substituted fish.
Unique names of fish have also been springing up in recent history. For example, patrons of restaurants can often purchase Chilean Sea Bass, a fish that actually doesn’t exist. The fish marketed as Chilean Sea Bass is actually Patagonian Toothfish, a type of cod that leaves a bad taste in your mouth after you say it. The toothfish was never meant to be seafood, hence its unappetizing title. It is merely a response to declining fish stocks in traditional seafood species, such as other cods.
|Chilean Sea Bass (Patagonian Toothfish)|
There is a clear need for federal regulation of proper labeling. According to the FDA, all seafood imports are screened before they enter the country based on their potential risk. All investigators are trained to identify particular evidence as fraud, such as mislabels with fictitious names, and the agency has access to DNA sequencing equipment. However, despite the large amount of seafood in the United States that is imported, FDA officials physically examined only 2 percent of imported seafood between 2003 and 2008. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection also play important roles detecting seafood species substitution, but they haven’t effectively collaborated with each other.
The FDA also has a Guide to Acceptable Market Names for Seafood Sold in Interstate Commerce. This federal document is intended to give industry professionals guidance on what the FDA considers to be acceptable market names for seafood. Adherence to this might limit brand fraud, but it cannot completely eliminate it.
In Australia, AS 5300-2015 – Australian Fish Names Standard gives standard names for different fish and seafood species that can be sold as part of the nation’s $5 billion dollar seafood industry. This is intended to remove confusion and increase efficiency, but, as with the FDA guide, there is little to prevent people from branding their fish with the name of another fish. Interestingly, the standard calls Patagonian Toothfish by its actual name, so there is a clear difference in standard names between countries.
Aside from proper labeling, another preventative measure of seafood substitution is establishing appropriate traceability. ISO 12875:2011 – Traceability of finfish products – Specification on the information to be recorded in captured finfish distribution chains does this by using a unique ID label for each of the goods traded, starting from initial capture on fishing vessels. This gives a clear track of the seafood product throughout the time in which it could be falsely branded.
In a time when so many people are concerned with the origins of their food, it’s bizarre to think that so much seafood isn’t actually what it’s claimed to be. However, current legislation and standards do address this issue, there just needs to be greater regulation and compliance to them.