Nonprofit advocate organization Oceana has launched a big, new, years-in-the-making campaign against what it calls “seafood fraud.” Its team of scientists has concluded that more than 70 percent of the seafood we eat in the U.S. is mislabeled, often on purpose.
Americans should have the right to know what is on their plates. If you eat seafood, the impacts of the global fraud uncovered by Oceana are being felt in the seas, in your pocketbook, and in your health.
The report, “Bait and Switch: How Seafood Fraud Hurts Our Oceans, Our Wallets and Our Health,” concludes that most people, including many buyers of seafood for grocery chains and markets, don’t really know where the fish came from … nor can they recognize one species of fish from another.
At the Washington, D.C., press conference announcing the report, Oceana laid out skinless filets of halibut next to fluke, red snapper next to hake and farmed next to wild salmon. Virtually no one was able to tell the difference. A taste test—between tilapia and vermilion snapper, cooked in lemon caper sauce—fooled everyone. If the meat is frozen or canned, human ability to distinguish tilapia from pollock disappears.
The over-arching goal of “Bait and Switch” is to require proper labeling on all fish, informing consumers exactly what they’re buying and where it comes from. Right now, illegal fishing operations—which mislabel and smuggle, falsify paperwork, and profit off bribery and corruption—evade all but the most rigorous testing. Increasing the difficulty of accurate labeling, most fish is processed at sea, and species are obscured long before the boat ever hits a dock.
If you’re paying to buy an expensive fish caught in the wild (salmon, for example), but are being sold a filet grown cheaply on a fish farm in China (tilapia), you’re the loser. On the health side, certain species are more prone to industrial pollutants and some contain allergens you should know about when ordering or buying.
If we can't pinpoint where fish are coming from, we can't monitor and control overfishing, wreaking havoc on abused fisheries. According to Oceana, the U.S. is “an easy target for dumping illegal, poor quality and unpopular seafood because controls are few and far between.” Eighty percent of the seafood consumed in the U.S. comes from overseas.
Solutions are within reach. DNA testing of fish is doable and not overly expensive. The problem is introducing testing in the field and enforcing its use.
I spoke with Beth Lowell, the Washington D.C.-based campaign director of the Seafood Fraud campaign, and she was optimistic that the report will result in real change.
TakePart: What's been the response to the "Seafood Fraud" report?
Beth Lowell: Great. The media continues to be interested in the story and not just from the environmental reporters, but also consumer and food reporters as well. For the most part, the reporters that I have talked with have been surprised at the amount of seafood fraud in the US market.
TakePart: What about the seafood industry itself?
Beth Lowell: The seafood industry has been relatively supportive as well. Fraud is an issue they know is a problem for the industry. National Fisheries Institute, an industry organization, formed the Better Seafood Board—one of area they focus on is fraud. Seafood fraud hurts the honest fisherman and honest seafood industry players.
TakePart: What's next?
Beth Lowell: This week the Senate Commerce Committee is scheduled to consider S. 50, the Commercial Seafood Consumer Protection Act, which would be a first step in addressing fraud in the U.S. In February 2009, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report on seafood fraud. This bill, S 50, implements many of the GAOs recommendations. We are supportive of the bill.
Overall, we are looking for improved traceability in the seafood chain so that fish can be tracked from fishing vessel to plate. This will help eliminate species substitution and other forms of fraud.
Want to make your voice heard? Write the Food and Drug Administration and tell them you want safe, legal, honestly labeled seafood.
A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon Bowermaster has spent the past two decades circling the world’s ocean, studying both its health and the lives of the people who depend on it. He is the author of 11 books (his most recent, OCEANS, Threats to Our Seas and What You Can Do to Turn the Tide, was published by Participant Media) and producer of a dozen documentary films. His blog—Notes From Sea Level—reports daily on issues impacting the ocean and us. Follow Jon on Facebook.