Report: Widespread Seafood Mislabeling

Feb 25, 2013

That nice piece of fish you might order at a restaurant or pick up from the grocery store may not actually be the type of fish you think it is.

Sushi venues were the least accurate among retailers when it came to accurately labeling the fish they sold, according to Oceana. Of the samples tested nationally, 74 percent of the fish at sushi bars wasn't what it was labeled as.
Credit Oceiana/Flic

In fact, a third of the seafood sold in restaurants, grocery stores and sushi bars may be mislabeled.

That’s according to a new report released by an environmental group that advocates for ocean health.

At the Pike Place fish market in Seattle, you know you’re getting the fish you’re paying for, mainly because you can watch the guys throw it over the counter in front of you.

Charlie Trimarco’s a fishmonger here. He’s standing in front of icy rows of glistening Chinook and coho salmon – running his hands over silvery scales and exposed pink flesh. "You can’t come up here and tell me that’s not sockeye salmon or king salmon or halibut."

But buying seafood isn’t always such a transparent experience, he says. "There’s a lot of stuff in this industry that’s very sketchy. It’s cheaper for a lot of places to buy fish that isn’t the fish they’re selling."

“I think the primary driver for high levels of fraud are economic. There’s a lot of money to be made,” explains Kim Warner. She's a scientist with Oceana. The ocean advocacy group checked the DNA from more than 1200 samples of fish sold in grocery stores and restaurants around the country.

In a third of those samples the DNA results didn’t match up with the labels the fish were sold under.

"We saw endangered groupers sold as more sustainable groupers, Atlantic halibut being sold as more sustainable pacific halibut. We saw Atlantic cod switched out for pacific cod," says Warner.

But there was some good news for the Northwest. Seattle and Portland had the lowest rates of falsified fish of all the major cities tested.

According to the report, red snapper and tuna are the fish most often mislabeled.

And some of their fraudulent replacements may pose health risks.King mackerel and tilefish showed up among the imposters. These are both on the Food and Drug Administration’s list of fish to avoid if you’re pregnant.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office released a report in 2009, which said that the FDA examines just 2 percent of U.S. seafood imports.

The FDA declined EarthFix’s interview request but issued a statement saying that species substitution has been an area of concern for the Agency for some time. They said that they have expanded their DNA sequencing program to nine regional field laboratories.