To quote Led Zeppelin: “How many more times…?”
In this case, how many more times do we have to read about studies that seafood in a given region is mislabeled before we do something meaningful to solve the problem?
In the most recent exposé, a study by marine conservation group Oceana revealed that in New York, three in five retail outlets it visited, including 100 percent of sushi restaurants, were selling mislabeled fish. Pile that on top of recent studies showing high rates of mislabeled fish (48% in Massachusetts, 55% in Los Angeles and 31% in Miami), and we’ve got a systemic problem.
So the question is why?
The obvious reason is greed. If you can sell cheap farm-raised Atlantic salmon at the price of more expensive wild-caught Pacific salmon, you’re going to make a tidy profit over time. Same goes for tilapia (a fish often farm raised in unsanitary conditions) and red snapper. And if you see something called “white tuna” on a sushi menu, run the opposite direction. It is often escolar, a bottom-feeding white-fleshed fish that can leave your gastrointestinal system upside down.
Oceana studied the DNA of 142 fish samples earlier this year from 81 retail outlets, ranging from supermarkets to corner fish shops, high-end restaurants, and sushi bars. No less than 39 percent of the fish were labeled as other species. In one finding, tilefish (which the Food And Drug Administration has put on the Do Not Eat List because of high mercury levels) was sold as halibut.
Granted, some fish species are so similar in their filleted appearance that distributors might mistake them. More often, the deception is willful.
So does it happen at the distributor or retail level? Probably both, as both would profit from the bait and switch. Is it traceable? Sure, all you’d need is a menu or list of today’s catch, the supplier invoice and a DNA sample. If the sample doesn’t match what’s on the menu, you know it’s the retail outlet. If it matches the menu, but not the invoice, you know it’s the supplier.
But detection isn’t the real challenge. The real problem is how to address a systemic fraud that is spreading nationally. Different rating schemas such as the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and FishWise aim to provide a “third-party” evaluation of the sustainability and sourcing of the seafood consumers buy. But there are flaws in these approaches, and a more comprehensive solution is necessary.
Massachusetts Congressman Ed Markey sponsored a bill this summer that would call for improved traceability of seafood and communication of that information to consumers. The bill would also establish better coordination between the Food and Drug Administration and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to better monitor the sourcing and practices used for imported and domestic seafood. This would include stronger regulation of the substances and methods used in aquaculture operations. The bill is in committee, and hopefully will move forward.
As always, knowledge is power. From a consumer standpoint, asking direct questions about where the seafood comes from, how it was raised or harvested, when it was caught, etc. is crucial. Also, ask your fishmonger or waiter if the seafood supplier is a member of the Better Seafood Board. A subsidiary of the National Fisheries Institute, the board was established in 2007 to self-police the industry against mislabeling, shorting of counts and weights and tariff evasion.
There is no absolute answer now, but a groundswell of consumer expectations fueled by education and coupled with legislative action could help minimize seafood mislabeling.
By Colles Stowell
GreenFish – By Anglers | For Fish