Common substituted fish filets.
Fish fraud is off the scale, a new study shows.
A fillet of rare red snapper could really be cheap tilapia. A pricey wild-caught salmon steak from Alaska could be farmed Atlantic salmon from Chile.
Those are some of the substitutions found during a two-year investigation of seafood by the world's largest ocean conservation group. One-third of the fish purchased in restaurants, supermarkets and sushi counters was mislabeled, the non-profit group Oceana said in a report out today .
Oceana's volunteers collected fish samples at 674 supermarkets, restaurants and sushi counters in 21 states and found several examples of fish fraud. For instance, 87% of the snapper samples were not snapper. White tuna was mislabeled 59% of the time. Between one-third and one-fifth of the halibut, grouper, cod and Chilean sea bass tested were mislabeled.
"Honestly, it was a surprise," says Beth Lowell, who coordinated the survey for Oceana. "Everywhere we looked for seafood fraud, we found it. It's consistent around the country."
At sushi restaurants, 74% had at least one sample come back mislabeled. At restaurants, 38% had at least one problem sample; in grocery stores, 18% did.
Oceana wasn't able to determine whether the mislabeling occurred at the supplier, distributor or retailer. Seafood goes through many hands, so it's easy for someone to substitute it, partly because 84% of the seafood eaten in the United States is imported, according to Gavin Gibbons of the National Fisheries Institute, a seafood industry trade group.
There are no solid government figures on seafood substitution and fraud overall, says Steve Wilson, chief quality officer with the voluntary Seafood Inspection Program of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. A Food and Drug Administration survey he cited found that only 2% of fish sold in stores and restaurants was mislabeled, but he says the survey wasn't focused specifically on higher-priced -- and therefore more frequently substituted -- species.
Selling one kind of fish under another name is illegal under FDA regulations, but there is little federal oversight. A 2009 Government Accounting Office report found that about 2% of seafood is inspected specifically for species substitution or fraud.
Some fish are honestly mislabeled, often because once they're filleted, many fish look similar, but outright fraud is common as suppliers or restaurants pass off a cheaper, less tasty species for a more expensive and rare one, Lowell says. When a species gets popular, such as red snapper or grouper, there may not be enough to sell. Tight supply makes it more expensive, giving unscrupulous operators an opening to swap out one white fillet for another.
One of the most frequently faked fish Oceana found was sushi labeled "white tuna" when it actually was escolar. Of 66 white tuna samples from sushi restaurants, 52 were escolar. Escolar is an eel-like deep-water fish, sometimes known as "snake mackerel." It has a rich, buttery flesh whose taste comes at a price. "It's the Ex-Lax fish," Lowell says. Escolar contains a "strong purgative oil," in the words of the FDA, that can cause diarrhea and gastrointestinal distress for several days.
The good news for consumers is that Oceana found mislabeling only in the highest-priced seafood. The five most commonly eaten seafood types in the United States are shrimp, canned tuna, salmon, pollock (used in fish sticks) and tilapia,Gibbons says. All are low-cost and not often substituted.
Oceana's Lowell offers this advice for consumers:
- Ask questions at the restaurant or market about where the fish comes from.
- If the price is too good to be true, pick something else.
- When possible, buy a whole fish. Fish look different even when their fillets look similar. ?
- Look for logos such as the Marine Stewardship Council, which ensures that the seafood is properly labeled.
Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY