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Report: Buying seafood is the ‘ultimate guessing game’

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Some sushi restaurants mislabel up to 74 percent of the seafood they sell. Photo courtesy Oceana.org.

Advocacy group says more accountability needed in the supply chain

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — The U.S. Government must do much more to hold purveyors of seafood accountable for the products they sell, according to a new report from Oceana. Tracking fish from boat to plate would reduce rampant seafood fraud and help reduce illegal fishing.

The international ocean advocacy group used DNA testing and other methods to show that 33 percent, of the 1,215 fish samples collected 674 retail outlets in 21 states were mislabeled under U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines.

In some cases, fish on a federal warning list were mislabeled, presenting a potential health risk for pregnant women and other at-risk consumers, and farmed fish are commonly misrepresented as wild-caught seafood.

“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.”

The group also said better labeling is needed to inform consumers about the fish they buy, including  the species name, where, when and how it was caught, if it was farmed or previously frozen and if any additives were using during processing.

Oceana found seafood fraud everywhere it tested, including mislabeling rates of 52 percent in Southern California, 49 percent in Austin and Houston, 48 percent in Boston (including testing by The Boston Globe), 39 percent in New York City, 38 percent in Northern California and South Florida, 36 percent in Denver, 35 percent in Kansas City, 32 percent in Chicago, 26 percent in Washington, D.C., 21 percent in Portland and 18 percent in Seattle.

The 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 percent, respectively. While 44 percent of all the retail outlets visited sold mislabeled fish, sushi venues had the worst level of mislabeling at 74 percent, followed by other restaurants at 38 percent and then grocery stores at 18 percent.

“Some of the fish substitutions we found are just disturbing,” said 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 percent).
  • 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 percent 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.

 Today, more than 90 percent of the seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported, while less than 1 percent is inspected by the government specifically for fraud. With more than 1,700 different species of seafood from all over the world now available for sale in the U.S., it is unrealistic to expect consumers to be able to independently and accurately determine what they are actually eating.

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. Oceana and others have found that seafood mislabeling often disguises fish that are less desirable, cheaper or more readily available.

Our fish often travels through an increasingly complex and obscure seafood supply chain, making it difficult to identify if fraud is occurring on the boat, during processing, at the retail counter or somewhere else along the way.

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