Less than six months after Boston was rocked by a Boston Globe story detailing a surprisingly high level of seafood mislabeling, a study released yesterday by conservation group Oceana found similarly shocking evidence of seafood fraud in Los Angeles and Orange County.
DNA testing of the 119 seafood samples collected from grocery stores, sushi joints and restaurants in May and December 2011 found that 55 percent were mislabeled according to federal guidelines. Sushi samples were especially egregious. Nearly nine of every ten pieces of sushi were mislabeled; and eight out of nine sushi samples labeled white tuna were found to be escolar, which is often referred to as “the Ex-Lax fish” because it contains levels of indigestible wax esters, known as gempylotoxin.
Snapper lovers can put on a sad face too. Of the 34 samples of snapper collected, every single one was mislabeled according to the FDA’s list of acceptable market names for seafood.
“You have a 50/50 chance of getting what you think you’re getting,” Geoff Shester, California program director for Oceana tells TakePart. “This type of fraud erodes the incentives that the whole sustainable seafood movement has created.”
By that, Shester means that for consumers who take the time to check their Seafood Watch cards, and consciously select only sustainable seafood, routine mislabeling means you may not be getting what you’ve thoughtfully ordered, and that can be discouraging.
“If you’re ordering wild salmon, but you’re getting duped into buying farmed salmon, the incentive to order sustainably gets eroded, and that’s where conservation concern comes in,” he says.
While the report did not disclose the names of the restaurants or grocery stores where samples were taken, Shester said that large chain restaurants—which often don’t distinguish between “tuna” or “line-caught albacore tuna” on the menu—fared the best.
“Then again, it’s hard to call fraud when you call a fish sandwich a “fish sandwich,” because as long as it’s fish, that’s fairly accurate,” says Shester.
The good news for seafood lovers is that the cost to conduct DNA testing of seafood has been tumbling, and since November, the FDA has been installing new DNA-sequencing equipment in nine of its major laboratories across the country to bump up seafood testing in an effort to stamp out this type of fraud.
Local action is on the books in California too, where Senate Bill 1486 will be heard by the Senate Health Committee next week. The bill, introduced by Sen. Ted Lieu, will require large chains to label the species of fish, country of origin, and whether the seafood was farm-raised or wild caught.
“Despite federal attempts to require point-of-origin labeling, the source of much of the seafood Californians eat remains a potentially dangerous mystery,” writes Lieu on his website.
When seafood fraud makes the news, does it make you less likely to order fish?
Clare Leschin-Hoar covers seafood, sustainability and food politics. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, The Wall Street Journal, Grist, Eating Well, and many more. @c_leschin