Widespread Seafood Fraud Misleads Consumers, Causes Health Risks and Hampers Conservation Efforts

Remember the line in the movie Forrest Gump? “Life is like a box of chocolate – you never know what you’re going to get.” According to a recently released report by Oceana, an international advocacy group for the protection of the world’s oceans, that is exactly what happens every time you go to the fish market. Food scientists are discovering rampant labeling fraud of seafood among retailers and restaurants, leaving consumers uncertain about their purchases.

Consumers Should Have the Right to Know
What Fish They’re Buying and Where It Came From

The researchers involved in the Oceana study, “Bait and Switch: How Seafood Hurts our Oceans, our Wallets and our Health,” suspect that fish and shellfish is mislabeled up to 70 percent of the time. They say that consumers are routinely given little or no information about where and when seafood is harvested. And worse, the information that is provided is frequently misleading or intentionally false.

This is a problem that affects millions of seafood lovers in America and around the world. While the U.S. government stresses the dietary health benefits of fish, it doesn’t make the necessary efforts to effectively regulate the fishing industry or even to enforce already existing laws.

Most of the seafood consumed in America is imported. With hundreds of different fish- and shellfish species for sale, it is unrealistic to expect Americans to make informed choices on their own. Consumers have to rely blindly on the information they are given. Yet, according to the report, only two percent of the imports get inspected in terms of origin and health safety.

Even sporadic DNA testing has confirmed that false labeling is widespread. The Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.) found during only one year of random port inspections that at least a third of fish imports were mislabeled.

Certain fish species are more easily misidentified than others. For instance, the label “Red Snapper” may stand for Catfish, Rockfish, Tilapia, Nile Perch, Mahi Mahi or Atlantic Cod (among others). “Grouper” may also be Catfish, Hake, Tilapia, Pollock or Nile Perch. “Bluefin Tuna” can include Bigeye Tuna or Yellowfin Tuna. “Salmon” may come from a fish farm, although it explicitly says “wild-caught” on the label.

Especially the wild and farmed varieties of salmon are not always visually distinguishable. Salmon from aquaculture would normally look somewhat grayish but is often given dietary supplements and artificial dyes to match the typical pink color of the wild cousins. The considerable price differences between the wild and the farmed versions can make it very tempting to commit labeling fraud.

Fish fillets are even harder to identify. Many look alike without the unique features and markings of skin, head and tail. Processing also masks the identity of shellfish. Clams and mussels get easily mixed up when sold without their shells.

Most imported seafood is processed before it’s shipped. Only about one fifth arrives whole or gutted. Whether it is sold in cans or served in small cuts in sushi bars, it is impossible to tell what exactly you are eating simply by looking at it.

Seafood is traded internationally more than any other food. In fact, most of it is transported around the globe, crossing numerous borders before reaching the end-consumer. This makes it complicated if not impossible to keep track of its journey from the water to the plate. “The increasing complexity and globalization of seafood markets have exacerbated fraud, both deliberate and unintentional,” says the report.

Illegal fishing operations have many ways to exploit the complexity of the international seafood trade and are able to effectively “launder” unlawful catches in the regular processing and distribution channels. “In addition to mislabeling and smuggling of illegally caught fish, other forms of seafood fraud include falsifying documentation, bribery and corruption,” according to the report.

Illegal practices cannot easily be stopped. Most fish caught in the open seas is processed right away on board of giant processing vessels before it comes ashore for further processing and packaging. At the time of labeling, the true origin and often the identity of the catch may have been obscured long before it reaches the market. The report concludes that “seafood fraud can happen at each step of the supply chain. Mislabeled fish found in restaurants may have been mislabeled by the restaurant, but the restaurant may rely on the distributors, who may change the label and the price to increase their profits. Mislabeling is driven in part by economic incentives to imitate a more expensive product or avoid tariffs on particular species.”

Seafood fraud can threaten human health
Seafood is extremely perishable. Proper handling and refrigeration are essential for quality and safety. Improper procedures can result in serious health risks for consumers. Looks, smells and tastes are not necessarily sufficient to determine quality because fish may contain toxins or allergens and still show no signs of spoilage.

Industrial pollutants like mercury, lead, PCBs and dioxin are even harder to detect. Unfortunately, nearly all fish and shellfish available on the market today contain traces of these toxins, with some species showing enough concentration to be harmful to humans, especially pregnant women and young children.

Farmed fish can carry antibiotics and dyes that are not present in the wild. Excessive use of antibiotics in aquaculture can lead to the spread of drug-resistant bacteria.

Allergens in seafood pose a serious and sometimes life-threatening risk. Fish and shellfish are among the most common food allergies in America. Failure to detect these potentially fatal health hazards is part of the many dangers resulting from labeling fraud.

Conservation measures are seriously harmed by seafood fraud
Overfishing and capture of species already threatened by extinction hurt all conservation efforts. Widespread concealment of illegally caught fish through multiple transfers, falsified documentation and underreporting makes responsible oversight and management of fishing industries around the world nearly impossible. It is estimated that as much as one fifth of reported catches worldwide come from illegal fishing. The U.S. is especially vulnerable to become “an easy target for dumping illegal, poor quality and unpopular seafood because controls are few and far between,” says the report.

One of the main obstacles in the fight against seafood fraud is that the U.S. government does not require complete traceability of fish imports. By contrast, the European Union has a system of catch certification in place to eliminate illegal imports and exports to and from the continent.

Insufficient inspections and enforcement of existing laws
To date, no single federal agency is in charge of combating seafood fraud. What makes matters worse is that federal agencies don’t even exercise the legal powers they have. The few regulatory efforts in place remain “uncoordinated and ineffectual,” according to the report. Instead of taking a concerted approach, agencies operate within a “patchwork of overlapping and outdated laws.” For instance, the Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.) is responsible for ensuring the safety and proper labeling of all seafood sold in the U.S. Misinformation and false advertising, however, can only be addressed by the Federal Trade Commission (F.T.C.). The inspecting and policing of seafood imports is left to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency (C.B.P.). Only the U.S. Department of Agriculture (U.S.D.A.) has the authority to force seafood companies to list all countries of origin on seafood labels, which is still not happening today despite of regulations that were put into law years ago. In other words, it’s a maze of bureaucracy that gets in the way of meaningful reform.

The Oceana report is especially damning with regards to the F.D.A.’s performance or lack thereof. “Current efforts […] to combat seafood fraud are wholly inadequate. There is no comprehensive inspection system comparable to even the most basic requirements for meat and poultry. […] The F.D.A. publicly acknowledges that it devotes ‘minimal resources to detecting and preventing fraud.’ Even more concerning, enforcement efforts are virtually nonexistent.”

Only two percent of imported seafood is inspected for health and safety risks and much less for the purpose of fraud investigation. Despite the fact that the F.D.A. has the legal authority to prevent any and all illegal food items from entering the country, shady import businesses can feel quite confident that fraudulent practices will remain undetected for a long time to come.

There are a few other inspection- and safety programs, some initiated or endorsed by the seafood industry. However, most of these are voluntary and unlikely to be followed by those engaging in fraudulent practices.

The technology for testing is already here
Genetic testing of seafood is available and relatively cheap. Commercial laboratories charge up to 20 dollars per DNA analysis, but the actual costs per test are much lower. The F.D.A. has recently purchased gene sequencing equipment for five field labs and hopes to increase testing by the end of the year. Still, most of the current work is being done by individual scientists and advocacy groups like Oceana, not by regulators and law enforcement. To date, there is still no national study on the scope and the implications of seafood fraud and that is a serious public health concern.

If you enjoyed this article, you may also want to read “What You Should Know About Seafood” and “Genetically Altered Salmon and Other Engineered Food.”

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