Seafood Labeling Fraud Widespread, Report Says

DNA testing of commercial seafood has found rampant <"">labeling fraud is being used to pass off less desirable fish as more expensive species. According to a report issued by the group Oceana, recent studies have found that fish like red snapper, wild salmon and Atlantic cod may be mislabeled as often as 25 to 70 present of the time.

“We’ve tested well over 1,000 fish fillet samples over the past four years, from more than 50 cities across the country,” William Gergits, co-founder and managing member of Therion International, LLC, a worldwide leader in DNA testing of seafood, said in an Oceana press release. “Results from our DNA lab show that about half the time (an average of 50 percent) the fish you are eating is not the species listed on the menu.”

With about 1,700 different species of seafood from all over the world now available in the U.S., it is unrealistic to expect consumers to be able to independently and accurately determine what fish is really being served, Oceana said. Yet only about 2 percent of the seafood imported to the U.S. is inspected.

According to the Oceana report, “Bait and Switch: How Seafood Fraud Hurts Our Oceans, Our Wallets and Our Health,” in some seafood species, rates of labeling fraud run as high as 70 percent. “Estimates of red snapper fraud range as high as 77 percent (Marko et al. 2004),” the report states, “or even 90 percent (Logan et al. 2008), as a proportion of DNA-tested fish.”

Seafood labeling fraud can have a number of economic, environmental and health consequences, Oceana says. From an environmental standpoint, fraud encourages overfishing of already depleted species. Seafood processors that do appropriately label their products can be undercut economically by importers that market mislabeled “identical” fish at much lower prices.

From a health standpoint, seafood labeling fraud can have devastating consequences. For example, the Oceana report cites a case in which 600 people in Hong Kong became severely ill after eating what they thought was Atlantic cod. It was actually escolar, or oilfish, which often causes severe diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting. Labeling fraud is especially problematic to individuals allergic to certain types of seafood.

The Oceana report places the blame for seafood labeling fraud on the increasingly complex path products now take from the ocean to the dinner table. The group points out that seafood safety is handled by a patchwork of laws with no federal agency definitively in charge of addressing seafood fraud. Little coordination or information sharing exists within the U.S. government and many of these laws are not being fully implemented, Oceana said.

Coinciding with the release of its report, Oceana launched its new campaign to Stop Seafood Fraud. The group is calling on the federal government to implement a series of steps to ensure the integrity of seafood marketed in the U.S. These include the launch of a national database to track seafood throughout the supply chain, as well as more frequent inspections and tougher enforcement to discourage fraud. Oceana is also calling for more transparency in labeling, and is urging regulators to target known illegal sources of seafood.

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