That White Fillet On Your Plate

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Has the tuna you’ve been eating at a sushi restaurant ever not tasted quite right? It may not have been just you. Or have you and your family ended up sick the night after having some red snapper from the supermarket? There could be a more sinister reason at play than you’d expect.  You may have fallen victim to seafood fraud. Seafood fraud is defined by the Oceana website (Oceana is the world’s largest conservation organization for oceans) as deceiving seafood customers about what they are buying so as to reap greater profits. Investigators are finding out that this has been going on a lot more often than we’d previously thought1.

Seafood fraud can be done by lying about a seafood’s origin, claiming that farmed fish was caught wild, or labeling seafood as the wrong species3. Investigations have been unveiling cases of seafood fraud all around the globe1 in supermarkets, sushi bars, and restaurants. The crime has been described by Oceana as “rampant (Weise, 2013)” in the United States3.

Seafood fraud – a menace the world over.

Oceana conducted a study where volunteers gathered 674 samples of seafood from supermarkets, sushi bars, and restaurants located in 21 different states to test them for authenticity. Fraud was detected in samples from all 21 states. Specifically, the study found at least one mislabeled sample in 18% of the grocery stores tested, 74% of the sushi restaurants tested, and 38% of the other restaurants3. The organization also reported that of 25,000 seafood samples tested worldwide, one in every five had not been labelled correctly2.

Steve Wilson, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, mentions that a survey by the Food and Drug Administration found only two percent of stores’ and restaurants’ fish offerings to be wrongly labelled. Wilson indicated, however, that this lower number could be due to the fact that fraud and mislabeling are the most common for expensive species – on which this study did not focus3.

Escolar

The Oceana study found that 59% of white tuna samples were wrongly labelled and that 87% of snapper samples were actually something else. In addition, 1/3 to 1/5 of samples of cod, halibut, Chilean sea bass, and grouper were found to be incorrectly labelled3. Many of the mislabeled white tuna samples were truly escolar, which dwells in deep water and is similar to an eel. The flesh of escolar is rich, but it is also known to act as a harsh laxative. Mislabeling was found to be much less common in less expensive seafoods such as canned tuna, tilapia, pollock, and salmon3.  Beth Lowell, who led the Oceana study, has explained that deliberate mislabeling of seafood happens in order to sell a less expensive fish as a more expensive or rare species3.

Tilapia – an inexpensive fish rarely faked.

 

Damage Done by Seafood Fraud

All of this seafood fraud being discovered is alarming as it swindles consumers and can be dangerous to their health. Nearly 60% of the seafood samples found to be mislabeled in the worldwide Oceana study were species known for being health hazards to certain consumers. Some samples contained mercury or other harmful chemicals from the environment, and others were found to be fish species associated with toxins2.

Seafood fraud also leads to fish  that were caught illegally entering the seafood industry via laundering1. This can create an unfair degree of competition for businesses who are trying to sell the seafood legally. Additionally, seafood fraud can make seafood supplies less sustainable and can be harmful to the health of ecosystems4.

A Difficult Puzzle to Solve

Although seafood fraud causes so many problems and is a serious issue, it is difficult to get to the bottom of many cases and determine the guilty party. When there was a mislabeled sample in its U.S. seafood fraud investigation, for example, Oceana often couldn’t ascertain whether the retailer, the distributor, or the supplier of the sample had lied. This is because seafood often is handled by such a long sequence of people before it reaches the consumer. 84% of seafood consumed in the US is imported from a different country, clouding things further3.

Battling the Problem

On June 17, 2014 a Presidential memorandum was issued entitled “Establishing a Comprehensive Framework to Combat Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing and Seafood Fraud4“. This memorandum established the multi – agency Task Force on Combating IUU Fishing and Seafood Fraud (IUU standing for illegal, unreported, and unregulated).   In 2015 the task force published a plan that gave ways for the U.S. to cooperate with other countries to crack down on IUU fishing and seafood fraud4.

The Task Force also produced Obama’s Seafood Import Monitoring Program, which has now been implemented. The program dictates that “at risk” imported seafood be labelled correctly and that it be possible to find out where the seafood came from6.

Beth Lowell, the senior campaign director for Oceana, has explained that the Seafood Import Monitoring Program will now use the same standards on imported fish and on domestic fish. This should help domestic fishermen, by preventing others who caught fish illegally from outselling them.  Lowell also mentioned that consumers will be less at risk for harm as fraud is reduced6.

Some fish has been fraudulently sold as Chilean Sea Bass, seen here.

Though most agree that the Seafood Import Monitoring Program is a step in the right direction in terms of fighting seafood fraud, it is not a magical cure – all. Carter Roberts, the CEO and President of the World Wildlife Fund, has pointed out that Obama’s program regulations only apply to certain seafoods considered “at risk”. Only “at risk” seafoods will be subjected to stricter standards, and they only make up 25% of the seafood imported into the U.S. illegally6.

Even with the Seafood Import Monitoring Program in place, the number of cases of seafood fraud uncovered continues to climb5. The case seems to be that we can’t eliminate seafood fraud entirely as of yet, but that we can try to hold it in check as best we can. On its website Oceana says it is “leading the way(Oceana)” in the ongoing battle with seafood fraud. The group continues to push for legislative changes that would  require all parts of a fish’s journey – from the ocean to your table – to be made known. Oceana also continues to conduct fraud studies of seafood samples1.

Many other researchers continue to study seafood fraud. A  number of groups are launching investigations into how common the problem is and with what sea foods it occurs. In 2017 Loyola Marymount University and UCLA conducted such studies, using DNA testing of seafood samples5.

John Bruno, a marine ecologist, teaches a college seafood forensics course where – with his students – he offers a unique anti – fraud service to individual chefs and restaurants who request it. For $20 – $30, Bruno and his students will obtain DNA from a seafood sample provided. Once this DNA is sequenced, matching sequences are sought from databases of species’ genetic makeups. The names of the species having the matching DNA sequences are the true names of the samples’ species6.

What You Can Do

It would be tough to duplicate the bright flesh of salmon!

There are definitely steps that you can take to avoid falling victim to seafood fraud as an individual. The first step is also the simplest. Try to buy sea foods that have  a distinctive look such as lobster and salmon. Should fraud have been attempted with one of these species, it could probably be spotted by a careful look. Going along with this idea, it is better to buy whole fish rather than fillets since once a fish is filleted it becomes much more mistakable for some other species.  Fish with  white flesh are extremely difficult distinguish from each other5.

Crabs are one of the many products at Atlantic Seafood which have no mystery to their local sources.

Being educated about the seafood industry also protects one from fraud.  Colles Stowell, founder of the One Fish Foundation, encourages consumers to learn about the industries from which they buy. For example, it helps to know which countries farm which species and when the normal seasons are for species to be caught wild. Stowell also advises that you ask restaurants or stores where a particular seafood comes from. He adds to buy seafood obtained locally as it is safer from fraud – which is where Atlantic Seafood comes in2. Atlantic Seafood purposely seeks out local suppliers for their sea food whenever possible. Just a few of Atlantic Seafood’s local offerings include Connecticut lobster and crabs, Maine and Maryland crabs, Connecticut clams, oysters, and mussels, and an appetizer made with Stonington scallops. The shrimp at Atlantic Seafood is special in being from the Gulf of Mexico, since most shrimp is imported.

You can turn to Atlantic Seafood for fresh Connecticut lobster!

 

Works Cited

1. Oceana. “SEAFOOD FRAUD: STOPPING BAIT AND SWITCH”.
oceana.org, oceana.org/our-campaigns/seafood_fraud/campaign.
Retrieved 7 Jan. 2019.

2. Picchi, Amy. “Seafood fraud: A fishy business that’s on the rise”.
CBSNEWS.com, 8 Sept. 2016, www.cbsnews.com/news/seafood-fraud-a-fishy-business-thats-on-the-rise/.

3. Weise, Elizabeth. “Fishy fakes common in restaurants”.
USA TODAY, 21 Feb. 2013, www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/02/20/fish-seafood-fraud-common-oceana-report/1927065/.

4. Office of International Affairs & Seafood Inspection. “U.S. Government Task Force on Combating Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing and Seafood Fraud.”
NOAA FISHERIES, 4 Apr. 2018, www.fisheries.noaa.gov/national/international-affairs/us-government-task-force-combating-illegal-unreported-and.

5. Avant, Mary. “How to Protect Against Fish Fraud”.
QSR, Nov. 2018, www.qsrmagazine.com/health-wellness/how-protect-against-fish-fraud.

6. Hagenbuch, Brian. “Obama finalizes stricter seafood import monitoring.”
National Fisherman, 12 Dec. 2016, www.nationalfisherman.com/national-international/obama-finalizes-stricter-monitoring-of-seafood-imports/.

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