Oceana, an international advocacy group working solely to protect the world’s oceans, uncovered widespread seafood fraud across the United States, according to a new report released today. In one of the largest seafood fraud investigations in the world to date, DNA testing confirmed that one-third, or 33 percent, of the 1,215 fish samples collected by Oceana from 674 retail outlets in 21 states were mislabeled, according to U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines.
“Purchasing seafood has become the ultimate guessing game for U.S. consumers,” said Beth Lowell, campaign director at Oceana. “Whether you live in Florida or Kansas, no one is safe from seafood fraud. We need to track our seafood from boat to plate so that consumers can be more confident that the fish they purchase is safe, legal and honestly labeled.”
Oceana found seafood fraud everywhere it tested, including mislabeling rates of 52% in Southern California, 49% in Austin and Houston, 48% in Boston (including testing by The Boston Globe), 39% in New York City, 38% in Northern California and South Florida, 36% in Denver, 35% in Kansas City (MO/KS), 32% in Chicago, 26% in Washington, D.C., 21% in Portland (OR) and 18 percent in Seattle.
Oceana’s study targeted fish with regional significance as well as those found to be frequently mislabeled in previous studies such as red snapper, cod, tuna and wild salmon. Of the most commonly collected types of fish, snapper and tuna had the highest mislabeling rates across the country at 87 and 59%, respectively. While 44% of all the retail outlets visited sold mislabeled fish, sushi venues had the worst level of mislabeling at 74%, followed by other restaurants at 38% and then grocery stores at 18%.
“Some of the fish substitutions we found are just disturbing,” says Dr. Kimberly Warner, report author and senior scientist at Oceana. “Apart from being cheated, many consumers are being denied the right to choose fish wisely based on health or conservations concerns.”
Among the report’s other key findings include:
- Mislabeling was found in 27 of the 46 fish types tested (59%).
- Only seven of the 120 red snapper samples collected nationwide were actually red snapper.
- Between one-fifth to more than one-third of the halibut, grouper, cod and Chilean seabass samples were mislabeled.
- 84% of the white tuna samples were actually escolar, a species that can cause serious digestive issues for some individuals who eat more than a few ounces.
- Fish on the FDA’s “DO NOT EAT” list for sensitive groups such as pregnant women and children because of their high mercury content were sold to customers who had ordered safer fish: tilefish sold as red snapper and halibut in New York City and king mackerel sold as grouper in South Florida.
- Cheaper farmed fish were substituted for wild fish: pangasius sold as grouper, sole, and cod, tilapia sold as red snapper and Atlantic farmed salmon sold as wild or king salmon.
- Overfished and vulnerable species were substituted for more sustainable catch: Atlantic halibut sold as Pacific halibut and speckled hind sold as red grouper.