NYC’s Seafood-Fraud Problem

Is the fish you're eating the fish you ordered? A new report says chances are, you've been duped.

Is your halibut really halibut? (Image: Christopher Stevenson/Getty Images)

Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

Seafood-loving New Yorkers are frequently getting duped, says a new report published today by conservation group Oceana.

Random DNA testing throughout the New York City area found fraudulent labeling practices across a varitey of species. Pricey wild king salmon had been replaced with cheaper farm-raised Atlantic salmon. Perch was sold as grouper. Lemon sole was often flounder. For red snapper fans, the news is especially bad: Of the 19 samples collected, DNA testing determined that 13 different species—including tilapia, white bass and ocean perch—were being passed off as red snapper. And beware the menu touting “white tuna”: 94 percent of the time, it was escolar, also known fondly as the “the diarrhea fish” for its (ahem) purgative effects. Oops.

The problem is pervasive, and similar findings have been reported in Boston, Miami and Los Angeles over the past year.

In its latest sting, DNA testing done by Oceana showed that 39 percent of the 142 seafood samples taken from New York City area grocery stores, restaurants and sushi joints weren’t the same type of fish as advertised. Small markets had higher instances of fraud than national chain stores, while establishments selling sushi fared the worst—every single sushi venue tested sold mislabeled fish to unwitting customers.

Pregnant women should especially take note of the findings. Tilefish, which has an FDA advisory attached to it because of its high mercury levels, was substituted for Alaskan halibut in one case, and red snapper in another. It should not be consumed by expecting moms.

Beth Lowell, Stop Seafood Fraud campaign director for Oceana, tells TakePart she wasn’t surprised by the results. “Until we require more testing of the seafood supply chain and require traceability of seafood, we’re going to continue to see mislabeling wherever we look.”

The new fraud report is yet another black eye for the seafood industry, and it comes on the heels of last week’s Boston Globe story highlighting continued seafood fraud in Boston, despite a high-profile investigation conducted by reporters last year.

“The results underscore an ongoing lack of regulation in the nation’s seafood trade—oversight so weak restaurants and suppliers know they will not face punishment for mislabeling fish. Over the past several months, the Globe collected 76 seafood samples from 58 of the restaurants and markets that sold mislabeled fish last year. DNA testing on those samples found 76 percent of them weren’t what was advertised,” according to The Globe.

Gavin Gibbons, spokesperson for the National Fisheries Institute, says seafood fraud is a concern for the industry, but notes there’s a difference between a species substitution story and a menu mislabeling story.

“For Oceana to just test fish from the front of the house and find the DNA doesn’t match what’s on the menu, it’s only doing half the work. You need DNA, an invoice and a menu to know where the switch happened,” he says.

Lowell agrees, but says, “The bottom line is that no matter where the bait and switch occurred, it is wrong to mislead consumers with mislabeling of seafood. From our testing, we can’t know where the substitution occurred, which is why we don’t call out retail outlets by name, but we do know that seafood fraud is happening. And it’s happening not just in NY, but around the country.”

And it can happen to even the most knowledgeable people.

Celebrity chef and National Geographic Fellow Barton Seaver recently got taken. Seaver thought he was buying a pound of Maryland jumbo lump crab meat. Unfortunately, those plump lumps of crab were from Asia instead.

Seaver tells TakePart that in this instance, he truly believed it was a mislabeling error, not outright fraud, but he says what’s overlooked in this conversation is the role of consumers in curbing seafood fraud.

“Consumers have as much a responsibility as retailers. Fraud persists because consumers allow it to happen. We keep going back to those same restaurants that we know served tilapia instead of red snapper,” he says. “People honestly don’t know what red snapper is supposed to taste like or when it’s in season, or support traceability programs like Gulf Wild. When we don’t value that information, we enable fraud to happen.”

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