Is That Escolar in My Tuna Roll?

As part of our GO Fish! campaign, we’re focusing on seafood topics all month. Here is an update on a lesser-known issue, but an important one. – Ed.

Believe it or not, seafood fraud happens all the time. Recent DNA studies have revealed that the mislabeling of seafood in some cases may occur as much as 25-70% of the time. This threatens human health, costs us economically, and undermines conservation efforts.

Our partner Oceana has uncovered widespread mislabeling with their Seafood Fraud project: nearly one in five fish fillets sampled in Boston-area supermarkets, a third of seafood samples in Florida, and more than half of the seafood sampled in the Los Angeles area. 

In LA, all 34 samples with “snapper” on the label were in fact something else, and sushi was more frequently mislabeled than other fish – nearly 90% of the time.

Studies have even shown that even some fish labeled as “certified sustainable” aren’t immune to fraud.

Cheap or less popular species are often sold under the pretense that they are expensive and desired ones: farmed salmon is sold as wild salmon. Mako shark is sold as swordfish. White sea bass is sold as Chilean seabass. The list goes on.

How can this happen?

Detection and prevention measures on a federal level are inadequate. In the US, 84% of our seafood is imported, but the FDA only inspects 2% of it. And seafood often travels many steps between the fishing boat and your plate, from processors to purveyors – the supply chain is difficult to track. Filleted fish is easy to sell as another kind. Increasingly, grocers are independently improving traceability in their own supply chains to improve and guarantee their product, but these measures are not universal.

What are the consequences?

This is a human health issue. A species substitution can expose consumers to allergens, toxins, or contaminants. For example, pufferfish has been substituted for monkfish – and pufferfish contains a toxin that can be deadly if the fish isn’t prepared correctly. In Florida, grouper was found substituted multiple times by King mackerel, a species that contains such high mercury concentrations that the FDA recommends that children and pregnant women never eat it. Of nine sushi samples labeled “white tuna” in the LA study mentioned above, eight of them were found to be escolar, which contains a compound that can cause indigestion and other negative symptoms.

It also takes a significant economic and environmental toll. As a consumer, you may not be getting the high quality meal you are paying for, or the sustainably sourced item you think you’re buying.

Additionally, the lack of oversight and accuracy makes it hard to regulate illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing. IUU fishing is estimated to cost up to $23.5 billion a year in worldwide losses.  

Mislabeling also misleads consumers on overfishing, masking the scarcity of a species by replacing it with a different one and calling it the same name.

Photo by puzzlemepuzzle via Flickr, Creative Commons License. 

What can you do about it?

Ask your purveyors where their fish came from when you shop. Don’t give up on using seafood guides, and purchase seafood at restaurants and stores that have sustainable seafood policies.

Purchase whole fish when possible, as filleted or otherwise processed fish, are harder to identify.

Sign petitions and support measures to improve and increase testing and monitoring of seafood, especially imports, and to improve traceability and enforce international fishing laws.

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