The United States imports 90 percent of its seafood. The global seafood market is a complex and ever-changing mix of seafood farms, professional fisheries and private fishermen. Some businesses and individuals take advantage of the industry’s complexity to engage in profitably fraudulent behavior.
According to the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association, food fraud costs the U.S. economy $10 billion a year. Seafood fraud comprises a significant part of those losses. Short-weighting seafood is a common con, as is mislabeling fish to sell less expensive fish as more valuable seafood.
Widespread Fish Fraud
A study by ocean conservation group Oceania reveals just how common fish fraud is. According to Oceana, 31 percent of seafood sold in Miami is mislabeled, 39 percent in New York City, 48 percent in Boston and 55 percent in Los Angeles.
Small fish markets and restaurants are most likely to engage in fish fraud. In the New York study, small markets had a 40 percent mislabeling rate, compared to 12 percent in national grocery chains. Tuna, snapper and salmon were most likely to be “substituted” with other fish.
Out of the 16 sushi bars Oceana tested, all sold some mislabeled fish (whether the restaurants knew this, or were themselves the victims of fraud, is unclear).
Mislabeling fish doesn’t just bilk consumers; in some cases the practice is dangerous. For instance, white tuna (albacore) is a popular sushi bar fish. In the New York study, 94 percent of white tuna sold to consumers was actually escolar, a snake mackerel. Escolar contains purgative toxins, so eating enough escolar can have unpleasant consequences.
Tilefish is often mislabeled as snapper or halibut. Due to its extremely high mercury content, tilefish earned a place on the Food and Drug Administration’s Do Not Eat list.
Religion and Fish Fraud
Seafood fraud also has religious implications. People buying specific types of fish because the fish is kosher are often consuming non-kosher “substitutions.”Albacore is kosher, but escolar is not. To say the least, this is a concern for anyone eating a religious diet.
Traceability and the Fishing Industry
Consumers should receive the same levels of accountability in the seafood industry they expect from other manufacturers. After all, you don’t receive roll-up bamboo blinds if you buy e cigarettes.
The National Fisheries Institute insists on a code of conduct all members of the Institute should follow. Members must never mislabel fish or short-weight product. Admirable though this is, not all seafood companies belong to the NFI. The code is also voluntary; if an Institute member only pays lip-service to the code, they’re only in trouble if they get caught.
The seafood industry, as a whole, is beginning to take steps against fish fraud. Technology now makes it possible to track seafood from source to destination, a change which will hopefully reduce the risk of buying the wrong fish.