Fishing for the Truth

The rise of mislabeled fish


in Archive



Looking over a typical day’s selection at the fishmonger, you might notice that the light pink flesh of a fluke, $12 per pound, looks remarkably like that of the pricier sole, at $16 per pound, right beside it. In fact, the two fillets could be swapped for each other and no one would know the difference. Unfortunately, this kind of seafood fraud happens much more often than you probably think.

This year, Oceana, an ocean conservation group, began reporting findings from its ongoing seafood labeling investigations. In July, Oceana found that nearly one third of 60 South Florida restaurants had mislabeled their seafood. In Los Angeles, Oceana found 55 percent of seafood had been mislabeled and in Boston, almost half (48 percent) had been mislabeled. Even after the study, The Boston Globe reported last week that several of the restaurants continued to mislabel their seafood. Of 76 fish samples collected from 58 restaurants, 76 percent of samples had been mislabeled. When working with the Monterey County Weekly, Oceana also found that 7 out of 19 seafood samples (36 percent) were incorrectly identified.

“Everywhere we tested, we found mislabeling in more than a nominal amount — more than a clerical amount,” said Beth Lowell, campaign director for Oceana’s seafood fraud petition that asks the FDA for appropriate labeling and full traceability of the nation’s seafood. As Oceana notes, the FDA inspects less than 2 percent of its fish imports.

When Oceana investigated South Florida, red snapper was mislabeled 86 percent of the time for a less expensive snapper or seabream. King mackerel, a fish flagged for its high mercury content and avoided by pregnant women, was mislabeled 16 percent of the time as grouper, which contains less mercury than king mackerel.

In 1977, Chilean sea bass was an invented name made to market the Patagonian toothfish. Back then, the mislabeling of fish was mostly about making less familiar and unglamorous sounding seafood seem more appetizing to the American shopper or diner. But over the years, the deceptive practice has become normalized and wide spread. Only now the stakes are higher — many shoppers are more motivated by environmental or health concerns than the way a fish name rolls off the tongue. Increasingly, consumers want to know not only the real name of the fish they’re buying, but also where it’s from and how it was caught, packed, and shipped.

This October Oceana’s petition for traceability and stricter labeling gained recognition as nearly 500 chefs, including Mario Batali and Rick Bayless, as well as several seafood vendors and food writers, signed the petition asking that the U.S. government “require seafood is traceable in order to prevent fraud and keep illegal fish out of the U.S. market.” For chefs, more transparency would mean they could ensure a wild salmon is indeed wild or that it was caught locally for an increasing inquisitive and demanding clientele. For others, signing the petition reinforces the need to combat deceptive marketing practices as the history of mislabeling fish has been recorded for years.

Mislabeling can be anything from mislabeling the source of the fish, undeclared allergens, and failing to disclose origin. But as with several of the studies, vendors failed to identify even the correct species of fish. In South Florida, 100 percent of the time, sushi restaurants claiming that they were serving “white tuna” (a species that does not exist) were actually serving escolar, the “Ex-Lax” fish that can cause gastrointestinal problems.

By using chefs to back the petition, Oceana’s hopes of creating buzz-worthiness have gained traction. Already, several of the chefs signing the petition buy directly from a local fishmonger, such as Sea to Table who in 1996 began eliminating the guessing game of traceability by creating a supply chain in three steps: sea to dock to chef.

Sophie Maskow, a sales director for Sea to Table, said Sea to Table signed the petition, noting how their system of supplying seafood already relies on maintaining full transparency.

“Not all wild is great. You need to be thinking about what kind of species is it, how it was caught, where it was caught, when it was caught, what was done with it afterwards,” said Maskow. “We’re trying to cut through that confusion and give consumers, chefs, and diners the ability to feel comfortable in the seafood choices that they’re making.”

Chef Jacques Gautier, chef and owner of Brooklyn’s Palo Santo, is among the chefs listed on the petition. He already focuses on sustainable seafood and sources his fish from the Sea to Table and Mermaid’s Garden. “Our system is pretty simple,” he said. “We get our fish from companies that we trust, from companies that have a similar mission to ours and getting the fish in whole is a good way to identify the species.”

Davis Herron, assistant director of retail operations for The Lobster Place, a New York City fishmonger, said when it comes to wholesale seafood vendors such as himself, he tries to provide as much information as possible to the consumer. But without seeing the fish whole, as in many cases fishmongers do not, Herron said it would be easy for his suppliers to substitute a fluke for a sole, or for that matter, several other fish.

Herron believes that more transparency would be better. Customers could make a better-informed decision about their purchase, whether they are motivated by environment, health, or culinary concerns. At the Lobster Place, Herron makes a point of knowing as much as possible of the back stories for the nearly 40 different varieties of fish, twelve varieties of oysters, and eight varieties of shrimp that enter The Lobster Place via the store’s 16th street loading dock. But there are some cases, Herron admits, where the seafood chain can get tricky even for him, especially when as a fish exits a production line in fillet form without any discernable features.

NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration support his claim. For years NOAA has worked to combat seafood fraud, working under The Lacey Act, a law that prohibits falsely identifying fish. According to NOAA and the Fisheries of the United States, a little more than half of the world’s fish is processed, which “in most cases renders the species unidentifiable without forensics and the farther a fish gets from harvest, the more likely it is to be mislabeled.”

This presents a problem for the regular consumer, who is generally not keen on butchering a whole fish. Gautier adds that the best place to purchase fish wouldn’t be from a supermarket but instead from a farmer’s market where you could speak with your fishmonger directly. Unfortunately, farmer’s markets with fresh fish are few and far between, as is the case with Andrew Capek, executive chef of Bluewater Grill in Phoenix, Arizona. “Here in Phoenix unfortunately we’re not surrounded by the ocean so we have to outsource everything,” he said.

In most cases where fish is sold, pressing questions and resistant problems remain: How exactly would you keep tags on a fillet? Or, how would you tag an order for 300 pounds of fish and ready it for shipment the next day? With the U.S. importing nearly 91 percent of its seafood, who is responsible for the burden of labeling and then checking the labels?

“In terms of traceability, it’s a really tough industry,” said Herron.

But Lowell doesn’t think it’s as though as many believe. In July Oceana worked with Edward Markey (D-MA) and Barney Frank (D-MA) to create the Safe Seafood Act (H.R. 6200). In it they would ask the different federal agencies to work together for creating a full-scale method for tracing fish at the grocery and the restaurant. Maybe they could use a barcode system or a QR system, but every fish — and theoretically every frozen fillet — would be tagged. Moreover, information such as the scientific name of the fish, how it was caught and whether it was farmed or wild or any transformations the fish had undergone (such as being frozen or treated with substances), would accompany the fish.

Oceana also notes that their studies are not alone in their findings. This November, the Los Angeles Seafood Task Force found 74 percent of the seafood samples they collected were mislabeled. Their findings resulted in 180 violations with two actually being referred to law enforcement. Last October, The Boston Globe, using DNA sampling, found 48 percent of fish samples were mislabeled from a number of restaurants and supermarkets, noting, “nearly half of 183 fish samples collected at restaurants and supermarkets were not the species ordered.”

Although mislabeled fish has long been an issue in the seafood industry where NOAA has cracked down on illegal substitution, a bigger cost comes in the form of consumer health and also conservation efforts, said Lowell.

“Red snapper is a fish in the Gulf of Mexico that has had over fishing in the past, but it is rebuilding,” Lowell said. “But when you see red snapper all across the country, it gives the idea that, ‘Oh, I don’t know why we need conservation efforts.’”

Ultimately, mislabeling of fish affects a broad spectrum of industries and efforts. But it comes down to consumer trust. When asked about his salmon purchase at the Pacific Supermarket in Queens, NY, Edward Smighzer responds skeptically: “Is this salmon or is this salmon camouflaged as another fish?” he asked, squeezing a .94-pound fillet in his hand. Having heard about the recent studies, he had become more skeptical of his purchases, and, like most consumers, wants more transparency.

“They’re scamming you,” he said. “It’s not right.” 10 December 2012


Clarissa León is a food writer and investigative researcher based in Queens, NY. Her research credits have since included working with The Nation magazine and with several writers including author of The American Way of Eating, Tracie McMillan, author of Eat the City, Robin Shulman, and long-time investigative reporter, Wayne Barrett for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. Follow her on Twitter @clarissaleon or visit her website.