Seafood Fraud: What’s Really On Your Dish?

Up to 87 percent of fish and seafood may be mislabeled: Internet Scambusters #552

Although it’s been known about for years, seafood fraud is
rampant in the US.

Despite best efforts of campaigners and government agencies,
as much as 87% of some fish varieties may be
mislabeled.

Meanwhile, truffles, honey and pomegranate juice are among the
latest batch of foods that also may not be what the label
says, as we report in this week’s issue.

But first, we urge you to take a look at these top articles
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And now for the main feature…


Seafood Fraud: What’s Really On Your Dish?


We don’t want to spoil your fish dinner but we have alarming
news for you: Around half of the fish and other seafood you
eat may not be what it says on the label or the market stall.

Research a couple of years back by the Boston Globe showed
that 48% of the fish bought at restaurants, grocery
stores and markets was mislabeled as a more expensive type.

And there’s no reason to think the situation has changed or
that it’s confined to the state of Massachusetts.

In fact, a recent study by the marine environmental campaign
group, Oceana, claimed that 87% of red snapper sold in
the US is mislabeled, while 84% of fish samples labeled
“white tuna” were nothing of the sort.

The same study identified California as the state with the
highest mislabeling rate. For the record, Massachusetts, or
more specifically, Boston, put in the best performance,
alongside Seattle in this latest study.

Last year, a California seafood company was fined $1 million
for selling catfish labeled as grouper.

The Oceana investigation also showed that sushi restaurants
are the worst places for mislabeled seafood, and that while
90% of seafood consumed in the US is imported, only 1% is
tested for authenticity.

Reliable testing involves checking the DNA of samples.

Be sure to download Oceana’s February 2013 report: Oceana Study Reveals Seafood Fraud Nationwide.

One key point, however, is not so much whether the seafood on
your plate tastes right or not but whether it might actually
be dangerous or at least unhealthful.

Some of the substitutions uncovered in the research included
species carrying health advisories — for example, king
mackerel sold as grouper and escolar sold as white tuna.
Escolar is known to cause gastrointestinal problems.

Some species were not even on the list of seafood recognized
as edible by federal food authorities.

“These fraudulent practices… carry potentially serious
concerns for the health of consumers, and for the health of
our oceans and vulnerable fish populations,” the report says.

One of the problems, for sellers as well as consumers, is that
no one can be sure where the fraud actually happens; some of
it undoubtedly comes down to ignorance as well as dishonesty.

The only solution seems to be to increase the amount of sample
testing.

Attempts at legislation look doomed. A Safety and Fraud Enforcement for Seafood Act was introduced in Congress in
March but its chances of being enacted are rated as zero.

So, is there anything you, as a consumer, can do to reduce the
chances of becoming a seafood fraud victim?

Not a lot, but you can certainly ask more questions about the
seafood you’re buying — about its origin and whether the
seller can vouch for its authenticity — but remember they
might not know any better than you.

One tip for buying scallops and shrimp is to ask the
fishmonger if they’re “dry,” meaning whether or not they’ve
been treated with additives to make them retain moisture, so
they look plump but just taste watery.

The best thing to do though is to make yourself more aware of
fish species, regulations and alerts, which you can do by
bookmarking and following the FishWatch campaign organized by
the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

You can also follow FishWatch on Twitter, Facebook and
YouTube.

But Wait, There’s More

We’ve already reported on other types of food scams in an
earlier Scambusters issue, Can You Trust That Label — Or Does It Hide a Food Scam?

However, the bad news is that this isn’t the end of the story.
In addition to the scams reported there and the seafood fraud
we’ve just been discussing, here are some other sneaky food
tricks to be aware of:

  • Chinese truffles. There’s nothing wrong with Chinese
    truffles but they’re nothing like the real fungal delicacy
    from Italy and so they only cost a fraction of the price.

    Chinese truffles are then substituted for the genuine item in
    some restaurants. They’re even sold in cans that make no
    mention of the true source.

    You can even buy truffle oil that’s totally chemical — not a
    whiff of even the Chinese stuff.

    So, unless you’re a gastronome, don’t pay a fortune for
    something you can’t properly identify.

  • Chinese honey. Another cheap product from the Orient.

    Alleged smugglers were arrested in a US Customs exercise
    called “Honeygate” earlier this year.

    Their alleged aim was to avoid import duties but huge amounts
    have already flooded the market and some samples have been
    found to contain antibiotics not approved by the FDA.

    Play it safe by going for local honey or properly labeled US
    produce.

  • Juiced up pomegranate. Pomegranate juice is all the rage but
    it’s expensive to produce.

    Look out for varieties that have been “diluted” with pear and
    grape juice. Usually it’s not evident from glancing at the
    main label, but it’ll be in the small print of the ingredients
    listing.

Horse meat for beef? Milk with artificial sweeteners? Cream
fillings with no cream? Cage-produced eggs masquerading as
free range?

There’s no doubt that consumers have to be on constant alert
for food scams. Seafood, truffles and honey today. Who knows
what tomorrow?

Time to close today, but we’ll be back next week with another
issue. See you then!