February 21, 2013
A fillet of rare red snapper could really be cheap tilapia. A pricey wild-caught salmon steak from Alaska could be farmed 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. A third of fish bought at 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 (FDA) 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 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 Accountability Office report found that about 2% of seafood is inspected specifically for species substitution or fraud.
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