Fish Friday: Fishy tales of what’s actually on the menu as study finds 1 in 3 fish are mislabeled

A new study in Ontario has found 30 per cent of seafood sample collected that were sold to consumers were mislabelled.

The mislabelling rate varied between samples collected from importers and retailers. Discrepancies in chain of custody documents were observed for 43 samples (21.4%). In total more than 230 samples were collected.

A major challenge involves accurately labelling products such that they comply with a diverse set of regulatory frameworks, ranging from country-of-origin through to the final point of consumer sale, according to researchers at the University of Guelph who published their findings in Food Research International. 

Thanks to DNA barcoding, seafood mislabelling is now recognized as a global problem, with potentially negative impacts on human health, economy and the environment.

Mislabelling can result from species misidentification, use of inappropriate common names, incomplete and/or out-dated regulatory frameworks, or through market substitution.

A total of 203 specimens from 12 key targeted species were collected from varied importers, registered processing plants and retailers in Southern Ontario and identified using DNA barcoding.

Species identity of samples was used to assess conformity of labelling against the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s (CFIA) Fish List, which revealed an overall mislabelling rate of 32.3% among targeted species. 

The U.S. imports about 90 percent of its seafood and once those shipments cross the border, and a new report by an advocacy group says the products are rarely tracked all the way to your table.

Beth Lowell with advocacy group Oceana, has been working to stop seafood fraud for nearly a decade.

“The consumer thinks that they’re getting a high-priced fish and instead they’re getting the cheaper alternative … they’re being ripped off,” Lowell said.

The group collected 449 samples from restaurants, small markets and grocery stores in 24 states, and D.C., and found that 1 out of 5 samples were mislabeled. It also found 1 in every 3 businesses visited sold at least one item that was not labeled correctly.

Snapper and sea bass had the highest rate of mislabeling, with 42 percent and 55 percent of the samples found to be fraudulent.

“The problem is seafood fraud can happen any time in the supply chain where one fish is swapped out for another. It could be because somebody wants to sell a cheaper fish at a higher price. Or if they’re trying to fill all the orders for salmon and there’s not enough salmon then they may swap something else out,” Lowell explained.

Not only can that fraud cheat consumers, but Oceana reports it continues to find vulnerable species – those that have been overfished – mislabeled. Some restaurants are now focusing on using only local, sustainable fish. Mayanoki is a tiny sushi restaurant in New York City where you won’t find the famous, but threatened, bluefin tuna.

“I always make the joke we don’t sell bluefin tuna and we don’t sell cheetah, you know, why are we able to have one endangered species on our menu in New York City and not another one, it’s confusing to me,” owner TJ Provenzano said.

So instead of the usual tuna and salmon, chef Jeff Miller creates sushi featuring regional species like one named blue runner, commonly known as baitfish. As a result, Provenzano doesn’t have to worry much about fraud.

“This is like the perfect American sushi fish, and it’s so overlooked and I feel like I’m in on a huge sushi secret,” Provenzano said. “That’s what we say all the time, the fish that we’re serving, nobody would want to fake.”

“Let me be frank, there is no sacrifice in quality when it comes to eating these things. They’re absolutely beautiful species that are just kind of underappreciated,” he added.

But with most restaurants still serving imported seafood, Oceana said the government needs to keep better track of which species are going where.

“We need to be tracking seafood from the fishery or farm all the way through the supply chain,” Lowell said.

Last year, the government started a monitoring program for some seafood, but Lowell said only 13 species are tracked, and once in the U.S. they are no longer followed. NOAA, the government agency responsible for the program, told us it tracks seafood that is “particularly vulnerable to illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing and seafood fraud,” and said the program was “not designed to trace seafood products after they enter the U.S. market

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Peg Fong

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