Fish fraud: What's on the menu often isn't what's on your plate

If you splurge on the sea bass or snapper, you may not always be getting what you pay for, even at the fanciest restaurants and upscale fish markets.T...

Posted: Mar 7, 2019 10:51 AM

If you splurge on the sea bass or snapper, you may not always be getting what you pay for, even at the fanciest restaurants and upscale fish markets.

There's something, well, fishy going on with certain favorite fish dishes, according to a new study from the conservation group Oceana.

DNA tests showed that about 21% of the fish researchers sampled was not what it was called on the label or menu. That's despite nearly a decade of investigations, more regulations and Americans' appetites growing beyond fish sticks and tuna surprise.

"Consumers are getting ripped off," said Beth Lowell, Oceana's deputy vice president. Lowell said this isn't an isolated problem. Her organization tested more than 400 samples from 277 locations in 24 states and in the District of Columbia. Oceana did not name the markets, stores and restaurants where it purchased the samples.

Among the samples they tested, seafood was more frequently mislabeled in restaurants and at smaller markets than in larger grocery chains. One out of three stores and restaurants visited by the investigative team sold at least one mislabeled item.

Favorites like sea bass and snapper had some of the highest rates of mislabeling. Sea bass was mislabeled 55% of the time and snapper 42% of the time, Oceana's tests showed. Often, instead of sea bass, they'd get giant perch or Nile tilapia, fish that should be less expensive and is considered lower quality. Dover sole they tested was actually walleye. Lavender jobfish had been substituted for Florida snapper.

"We've been testing seafood for nine years now, and every time we do a study, we think, 'maybe we will no longer see a problem,' but we keep finding it, and we know it's having an impact on our oceans," Lowell said.

Some of the substituted fish was not sustainably caught, even though it was sold as such, meaning an overfished and endangered Atlantic halibut was sold as the more plentiful Pacific halibut. One in four halibut samples the group tested was mislabeled.

For Americans who are trying to be more mindful about the fish they eat; who are worried about the impact of climate change and endangering fish stock; who want to eat food from lakes or oceans closer to home; or for pregnant women trying to avoid fish with high mercury content, this news has got to be frustrating, Lowell said.

"We need to do more to protect consumers," Lowell said.

Oceana's is not the only recent study to find fish fraud. In December, a New York state Attorney General's Office investigation found that more than one in four samples, or 26.92% of the seafood they bought and tested was mislabeled. In that investigation, the problem was in virtually "every tested seafood category."

New Yorkers who paid 35% extra for "wild" caught would be disappointed to learn that the investigation found it was often farm-raised. The fish substitutes were often cheaper.

"You have to imagine how complex seafood commerce is," said Dan Distel, director and research professor at the Ocean Genome Legacy lab at the Northeastern University Marine Science Center. The lab performed the DNA work in the New York Investigation.

"A lot of mislabeling is probably intentional, sure," he said. "There is also plenty that must be accidental or just the result of the ignorance of the rules."

With so many species and with 80% of the fish Americans eat coming from international sources, labeling is complicated.

"In order to maintain accurate labeling, you have to track it from the fisherman, who is sometimes in remote locations or in the developing world. And then you track it through a variety of middlemen to the distributor, the store, to the high school kids stocking the shelves. There are a lot of places where things could go wrong," Distel said.

Names of fish can also be confusing for people who sell them. Something sold as snapper, for instance, can actually be a few different species. If it's sold as the more expensive red snapper, that's got to be a specific fish, according to FDA rules.

Sometimes, rules even allow a fish to be called something else. Chilean sea bass, for instance, is actually Patagonian toothfish or Antarctic toothfish -- not sea bass. But the restaurant or market has to use "Chilean" in the name. If it's just called "sea bass," it's mislabeled.

"With regard to fraud, honestly, it is fairly simple. Yes, there's a complex global supply chain, like there is for so many products, but the reality is, if something is mislabeled or there's some kind of species substitution, it is fraud plain and simple, and it is just illegal," said Gavin Gibbons with the National Fisheries Institute, an association for the industry. "You would not accept this in any other scenario, and you shouldn't accept it in seafood."

He wishes Oceana would have investigated further to find the source of the mislabeled fish, and he doesn't think the industry needs more regulation. He thinks more of the existing laws should be enforced.

In 2014, the federal government tried to do something about mislabeling, creating the US Government Task Force on Combating Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing and Seafood Fraud. The task force's recommendations in 2018 created the Seafood Important Monitoring Program, known in the industry as SIMP.

SIMP requires traceability and catch reporting for 13 types of imported seafood considered most at risk for mislabeling, including red snapper, Atlantic cod, grouper, swordfish, tunas, king crab, mahi mahi, sharks and sea cucumber. Oceana wants the government to expand the requirements to all seafood.

Some groups have taken on the issue without waiting for additional regulations.

Demian Willette, an assistant professor of biology at Loyola Marymount University, has worked on an investigation of the mislabeling problem in Los Angeles sushi restaurants. That 2017 investigation found that 47% of the sushi it tested was mislabeled.

He works with the Los Angeles Seafood Monitoring Project team, a group effort that purchases fish from area restaurants, runs DNA tests to see whether it is accurately described and then works with the restaurants and regulators.

"This is not a gotcha operation," Willette said. "We're trying to work with those restaurants to improve this issue."

There are steps consumers can take to get a better chance of eating what you ordered.

Gibbons, of the National Fisheries Institute, suggests asking the fishmonger or your server or chef whether the establishment is a Better Seafood Board member. Members must adhere to industry principles that include correctly labeling products.

Oceana's Lowell also suggests asking your server about where the fish is caught. "Their ability to answer might indicate how much information they have about it," Lowell said.

If you can look the fish in the eye, it can also help. "You up your chances of getting what you order if you buy as close to the whole fish as possible," Lowell said. "The more processing, the more opportunity for a bait and switch."

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 112027

Reported Deaths: 3512
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Marion20746758
Lake10264319
Elkhart6387109
St. Joseph6109100
Allen5998200
Hamilton4695109
Vanderburgh338330
Hendricks2661122
Monroe242236
Johnson2258122
Tippecanoe223313
Clark213656
Porter207045
Cass19329
Delaware188261
Vigo176922
Madison158575
LaPorte137237
Floyd130961
Howard127763
Kosciusko119817
Warrick117035
Bartholomew115157
Marshall98824
Dubois95118
Boone94546
Hancock90742
Grant88833
Noble88632
Henry76924
Wayne74214
Jackson7409
Morgan70138
Shelby66529
Daviess64327
LaGrange63011
Dearborn62828
Clinton59112
Harrison56124
Putnam5349
Montgomery50521
Lawrence50428
Knox4919
White48014
Gibson4794
Decatur45339
DeKalb45111
Miami4253
Fayette41813
Greene41835
Jasper3842
Steuben3697
Scott35410
Sullivan33012
Jennings31012
Posey3020
Franklin29925
Clay2935
Orange28424
Ripley2798
Carroll27013
Wabash2628
Washington2591
Whitley2546
Starke2537
Wells2472
Adams2443
Jefferson2433
Fulton2342
Huntington2233
Spencer2214
Tipton21722
Perry20813
Randolph2077
Jay1720
Newton17011
Owen1651
Martin1640
Rush1514
Pike1411
Vermillion1260
Fountain1162
Pulaski1141
Blackford1133
Crawford1030
Brown1023
Parke941
Benton880
Union770
Ohio767
Switzerland690
Warren401
Unassigned0225

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 145165

Reported Deaths: 4623
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Franklin26134603
Cuyahoga17155644
Hamilton12786309
Montgomery7540152
Lucas7149357
Butler569399
Summit5149249
Marion306847
Mahoning3003279
Warren292748
Stark2757168
Pickaway263444
Lorain227786
Delaware215620
Fairfield203050
Columbiana192080
Licking186862
Trumbull1853131
Clark174238
Wood172572
Clermont164020
Lake158149
Medina143239
Allen137868
Greene136728
Miami135949
Portage108666
Mercer106517
Tuscarawas91720
Wayne90566
Erie90144
Ross85622
Richland80419
Madison78012
Darke76639
Belmont71027
Geauga70547
Hancock6649
Ashtabula65148
Athens6162
Lawrence60418
Shelby5879
Auglaize5689
Sandusky55520
Putnam54823
Huron5307
Union4962
Ottawa46630
Scioto4666
Seneca44814
Preble42013
Muskingum3792
Holmes3757
Jefferson3244
Henry29912
Logan2973
Champaign2943
Perry2889
Defiance28310
Clinton28113
Knox27915
Brown2772
Hardin25013
Morrow2502
Washington25023
Fulton2371
Jackson2334
Coshocton23011
Fayette2266
Ashland2224
Crawford2226
Highland2203
Wyandot20112
Williams1993
Gallia18412
Meigs17210
Hocking1619
Pike1610
Guernsey1567
Carroll1517
Adams1214
Van Wert1143
Monroe10818
Paulding1030
Harrison622
Morgan470
Vinton453
Noble270
Unassigned00
Fort Wayne
Clear
54° wxIcon
Hi: 80° Lo: 53°
Feels Like: 54°
Angola
50° wxIcon
Hi: 80° Lo: 52°
Feels Like: 50°
Huntington
Clear
52° wxIcon
Hi: 79° Lo: 52°
Feels Like: 52°
Decatur
Clear
50° wxIcon
Hi: 79° Lo: 54°
Feels Like: 50°
Van Wert
Clear
50° wxIcon
Hi: 79° Lo: 53°
Feels Like: 50°
Warmer Wednesday
WFFT Radar
WFFT Temperatures
WFFT National

Community Events