Seafood Fraud

  • “Traveler, have you seen that study?” I heard some variation of this statement from so many people this past week I quickly began to feel stupid for not knowing what they were talking about. Finally finding some time to read the news, I dove into what all the commotion was about––probably the longest, lagest and most exhaustive seafood fraud investigations in this country to date. One of the largest ocean conservation groups in the world, Oceana, conducted a study between 2010 and 2012 to test the truthfulness of seafood labeling in U.S. restaurants and stores. The group collected some 1,215 seafood samples from 674 retailers in 21 states and found that fully one third (33%) of all seafood was mislabeled.

    While grocery stores mislabeled about 18% of the time, restaurants’ mislabeling rate was 38%. Sushi places topped the charts with 74% of all fish being sold as a species other than what was actually being served. According to the study, snapper is the most commonly mislabeled species with just seven examples of truthfully labeled fish in a sample of 120. While snapper was the most consistently mislabeled, less expensive species are routinely passed off as species like salmon or tuna; and most customers are none the wiser.

    Why? Greed and/or ignorance are likely the two main culprits. Let me explain. If an unscrupulous restauranteur believes he can serve his unsuspecting customers farmed salmon when they think (and are paying for) wild Alaskan salmon, he has a major financial incentive to do so since Chilean farmed salmon is often $6/lb. (fillet weight) or less and wild Alaskan salmon can cost $10/lb. or more. Although this type of immoral behavior is probably not common and most restaurant owners/chefs are passionate foodies who care about the source of their food and their customers trust, there are those who will do anything for a buck.

    A less sinister reason for the mislabeling of seafood is simple ignorance. As with most of our food in this country, there are too many people between the fisherman and the retailer. In many cases there could be 3 or even many more middlemen between the fisherman and the customer. And you would be mistaken if you thought that each one of those middlemen know the seafood as well as the fisherman––in most cases they never see or touch the seafood and may not know anything about it anyway. One species can easily be sold as another due to common name confusion or simple ignorance. Additionally, each one of those people handeling or otherwise buying and reselling the seafood have their own financial incentive to mislabel. In this case the restauranteur may be buying already mislabeled seafood.

    Oceana calls for “a comprehensive and transparent traceability system – one that tracks fish from boat to plate.” We couldn’t agree more. But is it realistic to expect the type of “food policing” required to keep a system like that in place and honest? With the growth of farmers markets and locally owned small quality food stores and restaurants, I think we can skip the food police and take responsibility ourselves. I don’t think it’s too much to ask to go the extra mile for good food procured from the guy who caught, grew or raised it. Cut out the middle man and get your food from either the producer or, at the very least, a passionate and knowledgable purveyor. Ultimately it’s all about trust. Even the producer can lie to you. More than anything, the Oceana study reaffirms my commitment to the notion that we should get our food as close to the source as possible and from people we like and trust.


    March 1st, 2013 | Traveler | No Comments | Tags: , , , , , , ,

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