Original photo credit: Christopher Mace
What: Red snapper or Pacific Ocean perch…who knows?
Where: Los Angeles County, California
How: A recent investigation has revealed widespread violations of seafood labeling requirements in LA County.
The Story: The Seafood Task Force, a collaboration among the LA County Department of Public Health, California Department of Health, and U.S. Food and Drug Administration, with help from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, examined seafood from restaurants and markets in the LA area. Some samples were sent for genetic testing to determine the species. Of the 103 samples of seafood, 74 were found to be mislabeled.
The most common violation was the failure to represent the country of origin. When country of origin information was included, it was frequently misrepresented. Another common violation was selling a product labeled as one species, but substituted with a less expensive and sometimes less desirable species. Examples include:
- Pacific Ocean perch (Pacific rockfish), tilapia, silk snapper, sea bream, and pollock sold as red snapper
- Fluke (summer flounder) sold as halibut
- Imitation crab, abalone, and octopus sold as the real product
- Crawfish sold as lobster
In a couple of cases, escolar was being sold as “white tuna,” a species of fish that does not exist. Escolar is also called the “ex-lax” of fish by some in the industry because large amounts of it can cause severe gastrointestinal upset, a fact which many consumers are not aware of. Not that they could have avoided it had they tried…
Seafood mislabeling can be costly; and guess who’s paying for it? You may be paying $14.99 per pound for what you think is red snapper, but getting Pacific Ocean perch, which has a value of less than half, at just $6.99 per pound. Indeed, none of the “red snapper” samples tested by the Seafood Task Force were actually red snapper. Seafood mislabeling can also be dangerous. Consumers with seafood allergies and pregnant women may have trouble avoiding certain fish and shellfish if they don’t know what is really on their plate.
Don’t feel bad about getting snookered though; it’s easy to be fooled into thinking you as a consumer are purchasing one species of fish when you’re actually getting a totally unrelated species. As seen below in an image provided by Oceana, once a fish is filleted it can be very difficult to distinguish. Can you tell the difference between the properly labeled fillet and the imposter?
Original image credit: Oceana
Correct answers are : 1. Fish on the left is escolar or oilfish. 2. Left is Nile perch. 3. Right is mako shark. 4. Right is rockfish. 5. Left is farmed Atlantic salmon.
What We Can Do: To solve this problem, we need a reliable system of seafood traceability. Not only are consumers being duped, but retailers are as well. Since the mislabeling can start at the very beginning of the supply chain, with the fishermen and fishing companies, retailers may also be unaware that their product is not what it seems. We all deserve to know what we are eating, and those in the industry that participate in legal, sustainable fisheries ought to have recognition.