Sitting on ice behind a supermarket counter, the fillet of white fish looks inconspicuous. The label says red snapper, and the price looks reasonable. You purchase it.
Did you get what you paid for? According to a study by ocean watchdog organization Oceana, 87 percent of products labeled as red snapper may be other species of fish that have been mislabeled. The pattern of mislabeling, a form of seafood fraud, is not only limited to red snapper.
From crab to Chilean sea bass, consumers may be paying higher prices for seafood that is lower-grade, potentially dangerous for human health, or unsustainably sourced. These impacts have ramifications for the seafood industry, restaurants, grocery stores, and consumers who unwittingly purchase mislabeled seafood. In 2012, Oceana conducted an undercover investigation into the true identity of seafood. Their study revealed a startling statistic: one-third of seafood tested was mislabeled.
The report, which was one of the largest seafood fraud investigations to date, analyzed more than 1,200 seafood samples using DNA testing and revealed that a large proportion of seafood sold in stores, retail outlets, and restaurants is incorrectly marketed to consumers. In fact, fish species such as tuna and snapper are misidentified on a national scale at a rate of 87 and 59 percent respectively.
The study heightened concerns throughout the country about suspected seafood fraud and generated suspicions about food safety, price gouging, and unsustainable fishing practices. Industry leaders and consumers in particular were concerned that the lack of formal traceability regulations in some foreign seafood markets allowed vulnerable fish species caught through illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing to be marketed as more sustainable choices. According to NOAA, IUU fishing also contributes from $10-23 billion annually in economic losses to the global fishing economy and threatens approximately 260 million fishing jobs across the globe.
Apprehensions regarding seafood fraud were particularly apparent in Southern California where 52 percent of all seafood inspected in the Oceana study was mislabeled — one of the highest rates in the country and almost 20 percent above the national average. In the years since the 2012 Oceana report, the California Consumer Protection Prosecution Trust has funded several grants for the San Diego City Attorney’s Office to conduct more seafood identity studies. These investigations uncovered additional cases of seafood fraud in California and spurred a state-wide campaign to increase accurate seafood labeling and traceability in foreign seafood supply chains.
California’s high rate of seafood fraud raises an important question: who stands to gain from seafood fraud and where along the supply chain does mislabeling occur? To answer that question, experts looked to foreign seafood exporting businesses, which are responsible for 90 percent of the U.S. seafood supply. Foreign seafood exporters have historically avoided anti-dumping tariffs on low-grade fish by passing their catch off as higher-grade species. Since less than one percent of seafood imported to the United States is inspected for mislabeling, this type of fraud often goes undetected.
Seafood fraud often occurs with filleted fish that are easily misidentified without their tails, heads, and other identifying features. Misidentification is not always carried out with criminal intent—in many cases colloquial names for various fish species or bad translations contribute to false identification.
In order to stem the tide of seafood fraud in the United States, policymakers, consumers, and regulatory groups have engaged in bipartisan efforts to inform consumers and educate seafood purchasers about proper seafood identification. In December 2015, a presidential task force submitted recommendations about how the government should address seafood fraud. One year later, NOAA Fisheries released a final rule establishing the Seafood Import Monitoring Program (SIMP) to improve seafood traceability. The Food and Drug Administration also implemented several revisions to their list of 1,825 common fish names to distinguish the 41 names for shrimp, 38 names for shark, and 61 different names for rockfish.
In addition to governmental actions, new technologies have been put to use to improve seafood traceability. Groupercheck, a handheld device developed by the University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science, allows consumers and inspectors to test their seafood to determine whether or not it is grouper—one of the most commonly misidentified fish species.
As seafood demand increases worldwide, these and other public and private measures will be needed to develop a comprehensive and transparent traceability system to track fish and seafood from boat to plate.
Can you tell the difference between correctly and incorrectly labeled fish fillets?
Published in March, 2017, by the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative.