Why You Should Be Worried About Fish Fraud

Fish has been heralded as one of the healthiest foods on the planet, loaded with those highly beneficial omega-3 fatty acids.

But there is one important thing to consider before you make fish a staple in your diet – seafood fraud.

This type of fraud includes any illegal activity that misrepresents seafood being sold, which is shockingly easy. More than 90 percent of the seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported, and the government inspects less than 1 percent of that specifically for fraud, according to Oceana, one of the largest international ocean conservation and advocacy organizations.

Using DNA testing, Oceana conducted a two-year investigation of seafood fraud from 2010 to 2012 and found that one-third of seafood is mislabeled, according to U.S. Food and Drug Administration guidelines.

Additionally, 44 percent of all the grocery stores, restaurants and sushi venues the organization investigated sold mislabeled seafood. It’s difficult to pinpoint, however, at what stage in the supply chain these fraudulent activities occur, as the Oceana study notes.

Why should consumers care about seafood fraud?

1. Cost

In most cases of seafood fraud, the product turns out to be a less desirable or less expensive species, according to Oceana's report. For example, the study discovered a national trend of red snapper being substituted with the much cheaper tilapia.

As The Atlantic reports, such fraud, committed intentionally or not, is swindling Americans out of up to $25 billion each year.

2. Health

A whopping 84 percent of white tuna was actually escolar, a species that can cause serious digestive issues for some individuals who eat more than a few ounces, according to Oceana. The FDA has cautioned consumers about escolar, warning that it contains oil that can cause diarrhea. In the past, escolar has caused an outbreak of foodborne illness with the following symptoms (in addition to diarrhea): abdominal cramps, nausea, headache, and vomiting.

Another fish, blueline tilefish, was commonly mislabeled as Alaskan halibut, reports Oceana. Tilefish is on the FDA’s “Do Not Eat” list for sensitive groups due to high mercury levels. Due to vague labeling, consumers are rarely given the necessary information avoid these high-risk fish, even when they’re are properly labeled with their FDA-acceptable market names, according to Oceana.

3. Sustainability

In addition to hurting consumers’ wallets and risking their health, seafood fraud prevents individuals from making informed decisions about their food based on sustainability.

Over the course of their investigation, Oceana observed threatened species being sold as more sustainable options nationwide. For example, the endangered fish Gulf grouper was sold as the more sustainable black grouper in Denver, Colorado, according to the investigation done by Oceana.

From dolphin fatalities in tuna fishing to concerns regarding overfishing, seafood sustainability is becoming a priority for Americans. According to a 2012 survey conducted by Mintel, a consumer research organization, 84 percent of Americans were concerned about the depletion of the seafood they consume, and more than one-third of respondents were confused about which seafood options are sustainably sourced.

So how can we remedy seafood fraud?

Oceana offers one potential solution to seafood fraud: Adopting scientific Latin species names on labels instead of the FDA’s “acceptable market names,” which are often vague and misleading, Oceana notes in its 2015 report “One Name, One Fish: Why Seafood Names Matter.”

This policy is essential to improving the traceability of each catch from the boat to your plate and key to ending seafood fraud. Additionally, scientific names for seafood are already recognized in every language and used on regulatory documents around the globe, according to Oceana.

As a consumer, Oceana recommends that you ask questions about the source of your seafood, check if the price is too good to be true, and try to purchase the whole fish, which makes it more difficult to substitute one species for another.