Mislabeled seafood deceives consumers and poses serious health risks. From red snapper to cod, halibut, grouper, Chilean seabass, tuna, and wild salmon, the conservation group Oceana found “seafood fraud everywhere it tested.” Across the country, snapper was mislabeled 87 percent and tuna 59 percent. After a two-year study of 1,200 seafood samples, Oceana announced on Thursday that a third of seafood is mislabeled and that “Mislabeling was found in 27 of the 46 fish types tested (59 percent).”
National Geographic reports on Feb. 21, 2013, that “Oceana found seafood fraud everywhere it tested, including 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 (MO/KS), 32 percent in Chicago, 26 percent in Washington, D.C., 21 percent in Portland (OR) and 18 percent in Seattle.”
Sushi venues had the worst level of seafood labeling at 74 percent.
Retail outlets mislabeled 44 percent of the fish.
Restaurants mislabeled fish 38 percent.
Grocery stores mislabeled fish at 18 percent.
Out of 1,215 fish samples that Oceana collected from 674 retail outlets in 21 states, 33 percent of the seafood was mislabeled. While some of the seafood mislabeling changed from region to region, Oceana found that in some areas seafood was mislabeled more than 90 percent.
“In a statement, Beth Lowell, a campaign director at Oceana, said, ‘Purchasing seafood has become the ultimate guessing game for U.S. consumers. Whether you live in Florida or Kansas, no one is safe from seafood fraud’.”
As part of the seafood fraud, wild fish was replaced with cheaper farmed fish, red snapper was replaced with tilapia, wild and king salmon was replaced with Atlantic farmed salmon, Pacific halibut was replaced with Atlantic halibut, red grouper was replaced with speckled hind sold, and pangasius was replaced with grouper, sole, or cod. In South Florida, grouper was replaced by king mackerel. In New York City, red snapper or halibut was replaced with tilefish.
But does it really matter? Isn’t fish just fish?
Mislabeling seafood and seafood fraud does not only affect consumers’ pockets but also consumers’ health.
According to Oceana, “84 percent of the white tuna samples were actually escolar, a species that can cause serious digestive issues for some individuals who eat more than a few ounces.”
Because of its high-mercury content, tilefish has been banned in several countries. Consuming unknowingly too much tilefish can result in mercury poisoning with symptoms like itching, skin discoloration, shedding of the skin, swelling, sweating, increased salivation, or high blood pressure.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Mercury is a toxin that occurs in the environment naturally and as a result of industrial pollution. Methylmercury is a form of mercury found in some fish and shellfish. It poses a risk to people who consume certain types of fish and shellfish. The greatest risk is to women of childbearing age and to children, who should not eat certain types of fish. Mercury can damage the nervous system of young children and developing fetuses.”
“Human exposure to mercury through fish consumption is a growing concern in the United States. Areas with high mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants and that have populations who frequently consume fish are of most concern. To help people eat the proper amount and species, they need accurate information about how much and what types of fish to consume.”
In the United States, the agency responsible for ensuring that consumers have “accurate information” available, is supposed to be the FDA. Unfortunately, while the FDA already has laws in place to protect the health of consumers, based on Oceana’s report about the mislabeling of seafood and seafood fraud, those laws still need to be much more enforced.