Fish Fooled: Happening Everywhere

In breaking news, human beings lie. In fact, it’s one of the things that make us most human. And it’s especially prevalent in situations where the liar stands to make a lot of money and has little or no chance of being caught. This unfortunate circumstance has recently come to light in relation to seafood being sold at grocery stores and restaurants. Something is definitely fishy. Oceana, a non-profit ocean protection group, recently conducted a comprehensive two-year fish fraud study in which they tested over 1,215 seafood samples from 674 retailers nationwide. Overall, 1/3 of the samples tested were found to be mislabeled. That means that, on average, one out of every three times you eat seafood, you are actually consuming a different fish than what was advertised.

Seafood retailers definitely stand to gain big dollars by mislabeling fish, and the fact that the FDA inspects less than 1% of fish for fraud means that they are extremely unlikely to be caught. It seems to be the perfect storm for a lie. Sushi restaurants were most likely to use mislabeled fish. In fact, Oceana found that a staggering 74% of fish in sushi restaurants was mislabeled. It’s atrocious to think that three out of every four fish dishes in the sushi restaurants were lies. Non-sushi restaurants came in with 38% of their fish mislabeled and grocery stores had the lowest percentage of mislabeled fish at 18%. Take a minute to let that all sink in. The bottom line is that you’re being lied to consistently and pervasively when it comes to seafood, no matter where you buy it. Especially in restaurants where the fish is cooked, paired with other ingredients, and often disguised with sauces and marinades, it is almost impossible to spot a fake fish. But even in grocery stores, almost one out of five fish were mislabeled.

The most commonly mislabeled fish was snapper, a very popular fish in California and on the east coast. Rock cod and tilapia are similar to snapper, and most of what is labeled as “snapper” is actually one of these two fish. In fact, 87% of the snapper samples collected in the Oceana study were found to be mislabeled. Of the 120 snapper samples collected nationwide, only seven (7!) were found to actually be genuine snapper. So next time you buy snapper, you might as well pay half the price or less for rock cod or tilapia because that is what you’re getting anyway. Another commonly mislabeled fish (in terms of wild or farmed) is salmon. Now luckily, salmon flesh is easy to spot because of its distinctive pink color. No other fish really looks like it. But the wild vs. farmed debate comes into play big time in this circumstance. Ask anyone who works at a restaurant what it’s like to tell a customer that the salmon on the menu is farmed, and they’ll tell you that you typically see the customer make a face that’s strikingly similar to a child’s after dropping his or her ice cream cone. With wild salmon sometimes going for as much as twice the price of farmed salmon, and the fact that it is difficult to tell the difference between the two, you can see why salmon is so often lied about. To me, wild salmon is leaner, steakier in texture, and stronger in flavor than farmed salmon. But unless you’ve eaten a lot of salmon in your life, telling the difference can be quite difficult.

So what can you, the consumer, do to ensure that the fish you’re buying is the fish you’re getting? Unfortunately, not much. It’s hard to know who to even blame for the problem. The fish distributors are often the ones mislabeling the fish, which leads the restaurant to mislabel the fish on its menu. But certainly restaurants can be to blame too if they are sold a correctly labeled fish and then advertise it on the menu as something different in order to charge a higher price. The onus right now is on the feds to crack down on this type of fraud and start inspecting more than 1% of seafood samples for accuracy. But at least you’re buying fish and getting fish, even if it’s not the right type. It could be worse, you could be buying hamburger and actually getting a horse burger (an article for another day). But there are a few preventative measures that you can take to make sure that the fish you’re buying is accurately labeled. The results of this study should put fish retailers on high alert anyway, so that’s a start. You can also make sure and try many types of fish, which gives you a better palette for what is what. Be especially careful in sushi restaurants. Be especially wary of snapper. Consider the price of the fish you’re buying and like everything else in life, if it seems too good to be true then it probably is. You can also purchase the whole fish, although it’s uncommon to find whole fish in grocery stores or restaurants. Overall, simply being aware of the problem and being cautious and wary is a good start. And knowing what types of fish and what types of establishments are most guilty of fish fraud will at least help you make better decisions in your seafood-related future. Similar to the internet phenomenon of getting “catfished,” just make sure you’re not real-life catfished next time you order seafood from a restaurant or buy it from a grocery store. Because it’s a lot more common than you think.

Article Courtesy:  Andrew Steingrube

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