Seafood Fraud – You Are Eating MISLABELED Fish!
You may not realize it but over a third of the seafood you’ve eaten in your life has been mislabeled. Unfortunately, mislabeled fish is a growing problem around the world. The profits from seafood fraud are massive and it is only becoming more widespread.
Keep in mind, that this doesn’t mean your local grocery store or neighborhood restaurant is intentionally perpetrating seafood fraud. However, the fact remains, that somewhere along the supply chain from fisherman to your dinner plate, someone is committing seafood fraud at a staggering rate.
Analysis of 44 recent studies of more than 9,000 seafood samples from restaurants, fishmongers, and supermarkets in more than 30 countries found that 36% of fish are mislabeled, exposing seafood fraud on a vast global scale.
Many of the studies used relatively new DNA analysis techniques. In one comparison of sales of fish labeled “snapper” by fishmongers, supermarkets, and restaurants in Canada, the US, the UK, Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand, researchers found mislabeled fish in about 40% of those tested. The UK and Canada had the highest rates of mislabeled fish in the study, at 55%, followed by the US at 38%.
Another type of seafood fraud is when the mislabeled fish were a different species in the same family. In Germany, for example, 48% of tested samples purporting to be king scallops were in fact the less coveted Japanese scallop. Of 130 shark fillets bought from Italian fish markets and fishmongers, researchers found a 45% mislabeling rate, with cheaper and unpopular species of shark standing in for those most prized by Italian consumers.
There are “so many opportunities along the seafood supply chain” to falsely label low-value fish as high-value species, or farmed fish as wild, says Beth Lowell, deputy vice-president for US campaigns at Oceana, an international organization focused on oceans. Study after study has found mislabeling is common everywhere, says Lowell.
However, the studies in question sometimes target species known to be problematic, meaning it is inaccurate to conclude that 36% of all global seafood is necessarily mislabeled. The studies also use different methodologies and samples. Nor is it always deliberate seafood fraud – although the huge majority of substitutions involved lower-priced fish replacing higher-priced ones, indicating seafood fraud rather than carelessness.
“Although the huge majority of substitutions involved lower-priced fish replacing higher-priced ones, indicating Seafood fraud rather than carelessness”
The seafood fraud problem appears to be rife in restaurants. One study, representing the first large-scale attempt to examine mislabeled fish in European restaurants, involved more than 100 scientists who secretly collected seafood samples ordered from 180 restaurants across 23 countries. They sent 283 samples, along with the menu description, date, price, restaurant name and address, to a lab. The DNA in each sample was analyzed to identify the species and then compared with the names on the menu. One out of three restaurants had perpetrated seafood fraud by selling mislabeled fish.
The highest restaurant seafood mislabeling rates – ranging from 40% to 50% – were in Spain, Iceland, Finland, and Germany. Fish such as dusky grouper (“mero”) and butterfish were among the species of most frequently mislabeled fish, while for pike perch, sole, bluefin, and yellow fin tuna, there was a 50% chance customers did not get what they had ordered.
Sometimes fish are substituted with similar species – one type of tuna for another, for example. Often, however, the replacement is an entirely different species. Regardless of the way it is accomplished, if you are not getting the fish on the menu, it is seafood fraud.
A very common stand-in is little known and inexpensive shark catfish or pangasius. This group of fish is widely farmed in Vietnam and Cambodia and has a similar taste and texture to other whitefish, such as cod, sole, and haddock.
There is a considerable economic incentive to sell low-value fish in place of more popular and expensive species – and even more money to be made “laundering” illegally caught fish, says Rashid Sumaila, a fisheries economist at the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries at the University of British Columbia.
Sumaila calculated in a 2020 study that between 8 to 14 million tons of fish are caught illegally every year.
“That’s like 15 to 20 million cows being stolen every year,” in terms of weight”Rashid Sumaila
Fish laundering” is often linked to illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) catches by large “distant” fleets, in which foreign-flagged vessels operate off the coasts of Africa, Asia, and South America. Often, the catches are processed onboard large transshipment vessels, where mislabeling and mixing of legal and illegal fish is done in relative secret. The risk of getting caught is low because monitoring and transparency is weak along the seafood supply chain. “People can make a lot of money doing this,” said Sumaila.
Others lose out. Fish laundering results in an economic loss of $26 billion –$50 billion (£19 billion – £36 billion) a year, Sumaila’s study concluded, as illegal or fraudulently mislabeled fish undercuts the legal industry, making it difficult for honest players to compete. “It’s very corrosive,” he said. “If not stopped, illegal fishing just grows.”
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