DNA Testing Confirms Fraud in Grocery Stores, Restaurants & Sushi Venues - Oceana USA

DNA Testing Confirms Fraud in Grocery Stores, Restaurants & Sushi Venues

36% of Seafood Sampled Was Mislabeled in Monterey, California

Press Release Date: August 2, 2012

Location: Monterey, CA


Dustin Cranor, APR | email: dcranor@oceana.org | tel: 954.348.1314


Oceana, the largest international advocacy group working solely to protect the world’s oceans worked with the Monterey Weekly and found 36 percent of seafood samples taken in Monterey, CA were mislabeled. DNA testing confirmed that over one-third of the 19 seafood samples collected by the Monterey Weekly from 17 retail outlets, including grocery stores, restaurants and sushi venues, were mislabeled based on Food and Drug Administration regulations.

The recent Monterey testing follows earlier testing in May and December of 2011 when Oceana staff and supporters collected 119 seafood samples from grocery stores, restaurants and sushi venues in Los Angeles and Orange counties and found that 55% of the fish tested was mislabeled.

“Seafood fraud hurts Monterey Bay residents, tourists, local fishermen, and the ocean ecosystem” said Dr. Geoff Shester, California Program Director for Oceana.  ”People have a right to know what they are eating.  We need traceability from the boat to the dinner plate.”

Despite ongoing efforts by local and state authorities to combat seafood mislabeling, rates have remained high. The fact that one third of the fish tested were mislabeled in Monterey– a port town known for seafood destination– shows how rampant the problem of seafood fraud has become.  The Monterey Weekly targeted species with regional significance and those that were found to be mislabeled from previous studies, including red and yellowtail snapper, wild salmon, and sole.  

The biggest surprise was the discovery that restaurants selling the famed local Monterey Bay sand dabs were actually selling juveniles of flatfish species called flathead sole.  None of the fish labeled as “sand dabs” were the actual Pacific sand dab found in local waters.  “We still don’t know whether the baby flatfish sold as sand dabs came from Alaska or as the result of trawling in a local fish nursery habitat”, said Shester.  “Either way, residents and tourists seeking this famous Monterey Bay seafood dish at a local restaurant are being duped, at the expense of local hook and line fishermen who can catch real sand dabs sustainably.” 

Monterey Testing Results

  • The Monterey Weekly collected 19 seafood samples from restaurants, take out venues, and grocery stores in Monterey County.
  • Of the 19 samples, 7 were mislabeled according to federal law, resulting in 36% seafood fraud from this limited sampling.
  • Most notable were fish sold as Pacific red snapper that were really one of many species of rockfish and the sanddabs which were really a juvenile flatfish called flathead sole.
  • The issue and prevalence of fraud regarding Pacific red snapper has been documented in Oceana’s previous seafood fraud testing (i.e. Los Angeles).  Certain species of rockfish may be labeled as Pacific red snapper under specific conditions; however, this violates federal law.
  • The Monterey Weekly revealed that we now have to be concerned with mislabeling of sanddabs, a popular fish ordered from Monterey restaurants.

We want to see serious action taken at the local, state, and national level to address seafood fraud.  Oceana is pushing enforcement agencies to better enforce existing laws intended to prevent this type of mislabeling.  Oceana is also currently sponsoring California state legislation (Senate Bill 1486-Lieu) to require more accurate seafood labeling (species, origin, and whether farmed or wild-caught) in chain restaurants as well as federal legislation (HR 6200-Markey) to require seafood traceability nationwide.

About Seafood Fraud

Oceana launched a new campaign in May of 2011 to Stop Seafood Fraud, which can come in many different forms – from mislabeling fish and falsifying documents to adding too much ice to packaging.

Oceana is finding seafood fraud everywhere it looks, revealing a nationwide problem. The seafood fraud levels uncovered in Monterey are lower than those found recently by Oceana and others in Los Angeles (55 percent) and Boston (48 percent), and are similar to the fraud found in  South Florida (31%). All levels are unacceptably high.

In a report released last year entitled Bait and Switch: How Seafood Fraud Hurts Our Oceans, Our Wallets and Our Health, Oceana found that while 84 percent of the seafood eaten in the United States is imported, only two percent is currently inspected and less than 0.001 percent specifically for fraud. In fact, recent studies have found that seafood may be mislabeled as often as 25 to 70 percent of the time for fish like red snapper, wild salmon and Atlantic cod, disguising species that are less desirable, cheaper or more readily available.

Despite growing concern about where our food comes from, consumers are frequently served the wrong fish – a completely different species than the one they paid for. With about 1,700 different species of seafood from all over the world now available in the U.S., it is unrealistic to expect consumers to be able to independently and accurately determine what fish is really being served.

Our seafood is following an increasingly complex path from fishing vessel to processor to distributor and ultimately our plates. Seafood safety is handled by a patchwork of laws with no federal agency definitively in charge of addressing seafood fraud. Little coordination or information sharing exists within the U.S. government, and many of these laws are not being fully implemented.  

Oceana is calling on the federal government to ensure that the seafood sold in the U.S. is safe, legal and honestly labeled, including requiring a traceability system where information such as when, where and how a fish is caught follows it throughout the supply chain – from boat to plate – allowing consumers to make more informed decisions about the food they eat while keeping illegal fish out of the U.S. market.

For more information about Oceana’s campaign to Stop Seafood Fraud, please visit www.oceana.org/fraud.


Oceana is the largest international advocacy group working solely to protect the world’s oceans. Oceana wins policy victories for the oceans using science-based campaigns. Since 2001, we have protected over 1.2 million square miles of ocean and innumerable sea turtles, sharks, dolphins and other sea creatures. More than 550,000 supporters have already joined Oceana. Global in scope, Oceana has offices in North, South and Central America and Europe. To learn more, please visit www.oceana.org.