Widespread Seafood Fraud Found in L.A.
Seafood is one of the most popular and healthy protein sources available. Yet, consumers are routinely given little or incorrect information about the seafood they are eating.
As seafood imports continue to increase in the United States, the path from fishing boats to our plates becomes more complex and opens the door for illegal activity. Seafood fraud encompasses any illegal activity that misrepresents the seafood you purchase, including mislabeling or substituting one species for another.
Seafood fraud impacts consumers’ pocketbooks and the business of honest seafood vendors and suppliers. Seafood mislabeling may also pose health risks in the form of allergens, contaminants or pathogens in substituted species. Seafood fraud threatens not only our health, but the health of our oceans, as illegally harvested or overfished species may be substituted for those that are legal and sustainable.
As part of our new campaign to stop seafood fraud, Oceana recently investigated seafood mislabeling in Los Angeles and Orange counties in California and found widespread mislabeling. In May and December of 2011, Oceana staff and supporters collected 119 seafood samples from grocery stores, restaurants and sushi venues in Southern California. The targeted species included those that were found to be mislabeled from previous studies and those with regional significance, namely wild salmon, Dover or other regional soles, red snapper, yellowtail and white tuna. Eighteen types of seafood were collected and analyzed to determine if the seafood was properly labeled under both California and federal law.
Overall, 55% of the samples collected (65 out of 119) were mislabeled according to federal guidelines. Even following the standards of a California law that allows 13 species of rockfish to be labeled as “Pacific red snapper,” the percentage of mislabeled fish would be reduced by only one percent, to 54%. Fraud was detected in 11 out of the 18 different types of fish collected, with snappers, white tuna and yellowtail being the most frequently mislabeled.
Every single fish sold with the word “snapper” in the label (34 out of 34), was mislabeled according to federal guidelines. Even according to California law, only one “Pacific red snapper” was labeled properly.
o None of the ten species substituted for snapper in our study are among the 47 fish species that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows to be marketed nationally as “snapper.”
o Pacific rockfish comprised roughly half of the species mislabeled as snappers, but only one sample was both properly labeled under California (but not federal) law as “Pacific red snapper” and was one of the 13 species allowed to be sold by this name under California law.
o Consumers buying fish labeled as “red snapper” (or any other type of snapper) in Southern California could receive anything from farmed tilapia to pollock, in addition to any one of the overfished or vulnerable rockfish species.
Nearly nine out of every ten sushi samples from our targeted sampling were mislabeled. The amount of seafood mislabeling detected (according to FDA standards) varied greatly among the three types of retail venues sampled, with sushi venues ranking the highest at 87%, grocery stores the lowest at 31% and restaurants in the middle at 45%.
Eight out of nine sushi samples labeled as “white tuna” were actually escolar, a snake mackerel species that carries a health warning for its “purgative” effects. Escolar was also substituted for both samples labeled as “ono.”
The types of fraud uncovered in our study include: confusing and misleading use of vernacular terms; disguising well-managed, vulnerable and overfished species under a single name; substituting one fish that carries a health warning for another; and economic fraud, where cheaper or less desirable fish are substituted for the marketed fish in pursuit of higher profits.
Full traceability of seafood from boat to plate and providing more information for consumers about the seafood they are purchasing are the ultimate solutions we need to stop seafood fraud. In the meantime, increased inspection, specifically for seafood mislabeling, at the border and in the domestic seafood industry is needed to discourage dishonest practices along the increasingly obscure seafood supply