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 from our other websites:

Lower Your Blood Pressure with These 4 Foods: While you mainly hear about foods you should avoid, studies have shown that your blood pressure may be lowered with these specific foods.

Party Planning Madness: Your Super Mega Hot WHAT? It’s time to have a reality check when it comes to party planning and how it’s gotten out of hand.

Why Free Anti-Spyware Software Isn’t Always A Good Deal: If you want to make sure that anti-spyware software offer isn’t just another spyware scan scam, here are some things you need to know.

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!