Fraudulent fish have been flooding the markets as a new study reveals fishy behavior by retail outlets.
One-third of fish sold in the United States are labeled incorrectly, according to a study by Oceana, an international organization working for ocean conservation.
This means your snapper could be tilapia, your pacific cod could be pacific halibut and your grouper could be striped pangasius.
The U.S. is second behind China in seafood consumption. About 90 percent of seafood is imported, but the government inspects only 1 percent for fraud. In 2011, consumers spent $82 billion on seafood, according to the study.
The study analyzed 1,247 samples from 674 different retail outlets in 21 states. Sushi bars, grocery stores, restaurants and seafood markets were sampled.
Expensive fish are switched with less-expensive, easier-to-find fish, unbeknownst to the purchaser, according to the study.
The most mislabeled fish is snapper where 87 percent of it is replaced by other fish, mostly tilapia and rockfish.
Salmon is the least mislabeled at 7 percent and is mostly mislabeled in restaurants and sushi bars, according to the study.
On a national average, grocery stores — including seafood markets — only had 18 percent mislabeled fish in their supply.
‘Commonplace’ in Florida and elsewhere
Several of those who work in fish markets agree that the practice is common and lucrative for retailers.
“People sell lower-value fish as a higher-value fish,” said Lee Deaderick, owner of Northwest Seafood in Gainesville. “I can walk you in a grocery store right now and point out things that are regularly mislabeled and ask questions with the clerks and get answers that are wrong. It’s commonplace and people do it to make money.”
A Cedar Key fish market employee said she notices more customers are buying their fish whole, instead of filleted (cut), which makes it difficult for fraud to occur.
“It’s just identification. It’s hard to tell once the fish has been filleted and had its head it off,” said Katy Sweeney, a secretary at Clamtastic Seafood. “More people are starting to want their food whole, and want to know where it came from. That seems to be more of a trend now.”
LeeAnn Applewhite, president and CEO of Applied Food Technologies, located in Alachua, said she works to fight fish fraud.
The company has documented over 1,100 reports of fish fraud since 2006, including cases of “seafood nuggets” being sold as scallops and imitation crab being passed off for the real thing.
Applewhite said she has seen a significant reduction in mislabeled species from importers, suppliers and distributors, but can’t say the same for retailers. Restaurants had 38 percent of its seafood labeled incorrectly. But the biggest culprit, according to the survey, are sushi bars, with 74 percent.
Deaderick, who has been in the fish business for over 25 years, said it’s even commonplace for some restaurants to intentionally mislabel high-value fish, like grouper, which typically cost anywhere between $18 and $30, and charge less.
“People expect to have cheap food, but they don’t understand the fact that if you want the real thing, you’re going to have to pay for it,” he said.
The issue of mislabeling fish creates health concerns, too. Tuna is the second most mislabeled at 67 percent.
Tuna is sometimes replaced with escolar, which is banned in some countries like Italy and Japan and can cause mild to severe digestive problems even if only a few ounces are eaten, according to the study. Its consumption is discouraged by the Food and Drug Administration.
One employee at Sushi Chao, a Quick Asian restaurant in Gainesville, said that his restaurant directly mentions in their menu that their “White Tuna” Nigiri actually has escolar.
“It’s not that we’re trying to mislead people, but you have to give people what they want,” he said. “We do try to educate people about escolar, but they’ll still say it’s white tuna. In the end, it’s kind of hard to educate.”
In order to combat fish fraud, Deaderick says consumers should seek stores and restaurants dealing with reputable seafood suppliers.