Do you know what you are serving your family tonight? If it’s fish there’s a good chance that you don’t.
Today Oceana unveiled its landmark national seafood fraud report, one of the largest of its kind and one that should make consumers sit up and demand change.
Over the past several years Oceana tested 1,215 fish samples from 674 retail outlets in 21 states. DNA testing confirmed that fully one-third of this seafood was mislabeled—that is, what we ordered wasn’t what we got.
No matter where you live, seafood fraud is likely to be an issue. But if you live in Austin, Houston or Boston, it is especially widespread. According to our investigation, almost half of the fish tested in these cities was mislabeled. In Southern California the problem was even worse, with mislabeled fish accounting for more than half (52%) of the seafood we tested! Elsewhere, rates of mislabeling were found to be 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 and 18 percent in Seattle. Nationwide, sushi restaurants mislabeled their fish 74 percent of the time.
As one of our scientists told me, these findings are disturbing—and they’re disturbing for a few reasons. Not only can seafood fraud rip you off by making you pay more for less expensive fish but it can actually be bad for your health. Our scientists found that some fish that had landed a spot on the FDA’s “DO NOT EAT” list for sensitive groups such as pregnant women and children because of its high mercury content was nonetheless being substituted for safer fish. In New York this meant tilefish disguised as red snapper and halibut, while in South Florida king mackerel became grouper. Elsewhere escolar, an oily fish that is known for its purgative effects in some consumers, was substituted 84% of the time for white tuna
If that wasn’t bad enough, mislabeling can be harmful to the oceans as well. By disguising one species as another, it can be nearly impossible for consumers to make responsible decisions to avoid eating overfished species.
So what can you do about it? Right now the United States imports more than 90 percent of the seafood it consumes, but the FDA inspects less than one percent of that seafood specifically for fraud. Obviously this needs to change and we need to call upon our lawmakers to ensure full traceability for all seafood sold in the country. Oceana is hard at work behind the scenes to make this happen. In the meantime, if you don’t want to be duped by seafood fraud you can start by asking where and how your seafood was caught, be wary of fish that seems cheaper than it should and, when possible, buy fish whole.
Seafood is one of the healthiest sources of protein on the planet and should be a part of any healthy diet, but we need to know that what we’re buying is what the label says it is—for the good of our health, our wallets and our oceans.
Andy Sharpless is the CEO of Oceana