Imagine going out for a well-earned dinner on the town with the excitement of ordering a pricier but certainly flavorful fish like red snapper. Now imagine if what was served and paid for at a fairly steep price wasn’t red snapper at all; it instead was a cheaper look-a-like fish such as tilapia. How would a customer even know this swap-out occurred? Some people are fortunate enough to notice the difference in taste, but unfortunately, the everyday consumer does not distinguish the difference.
In 2016, Oceana, one of the largest international advocacy organizations focused solely on ocean conservation, revealed a study showing that roughly 20% of seafood worldwide is mislabeled. And in the United States, the percentage becomes even worse. The study stated about 30% of the US’s seafood is consistently and purposely classified incorrectly. This percentage climbed even higher when Oceana looked at restaurants in the US serving expensive species of fish. They found that red snapper and certain tuna in sushi restaurants were found to be false 90% of the time! And further, Atlantic farmed salmon was often passed off as the more expensive wild-caught Alaskan salmon nearly 70% of the time.
These disturbing results exposed by Oceana’s 2016 study are prime examples of seafood fraud. Seafood fraud is the practice of misleading consumers about their seafood to increase profits. Some of the most common ways seafood fraud occurs include mislabeling to conceal geographical origin due to illegally harvested species; plumping up the product by overglazing, overbreading, and using undeclared water-binding agents to increase weight; and swapping out species to have a low-value species replace the more expensive variety for economic gain. As highlighted by Oceana, seafood fraud not only cheats the buyers out of what they’re paying for, but it also is a public health concern while simultaneously putting the oceans at even more risk. With such severe and devastating associations, how is seafood fraud even allowed to occur?
The answer to this question is intricate and some refer to the multitude of factors involved as “the perfect storm” for facilitating seafood fraud. The path of imported seafood into the United States is usually quite long and complicated, especially since 90% of the US’s seafood is imported. Along the route for any given seafood product from boat or aquaculture facility to processing plant to retailer to consumer’s plate, numerous opportunities for intermediaries to mislabel or tamper with the product can arise primarily due to minimal regulatory oversight. In fact, in the same 2016 study done by Oceana, they found that the mislabeling of seafood products was occurring at every stage of the fish marketing chain.
To add to Oceana’s troubling results from their 2016 study, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found through testing that 85% of seafood is actually labeled correctly when it reaches the last point of sale before being distributed to consumers, suggesting restaurants and retailers perpetrate most of the fraud. Another startling fact that could be linked to this sort of fish fraud is the fact that 50 million pounds of farmed Asian catfish are imported to the United States annually, but yet it is not common to hear people going to the store to buy that particular fish. Dr. David Kessler, a former FDA Commissioner, stated, “If there’s fish that costs ten bucks, and I can find a fish that looks like it for four bucks and sell it, there is going to be fraud.”
Another component to this “perfect storm” of circumstances allowing fish fraud to perpetuate is a topic that is finally coming to the forefront as of recently. According to the National Fisheries Institute (NFI), there are 400-500 commercially available species, yet 94% of the fish consumed by Americans is limited to just the top 10 most consumed, with the top three– shrimp, salmon, and canned tuna — accounting for almost 60% of sales. The world is ignoring the vast majority of fish in the sea to overeat and overfish just a handful and it is this ocean sustainability issue that is believed to be helping fuel the fish fraud industry. In IFCNR’s most recent White Paper, “Increasing Species of Marine Fish in Aquaculture: The Key to Meeting the World’s Proteins Needs,” authors delve into this topic in great detail.
It is essential to know how and why seafood fraud happens, but what is far more important is figuring out how to stop this pressing issue. Oceana is leading the way for exposing seafood fraud, and they are doing this through DNA testing (which aided in their studies mentioned formerly) and by campaigning for policy change that would require traceability. Full traceability would keep that complicated path from boat to plate completely transparent.
Although traceability is not required, there are reputable third-party organizations that exist for auditing seafood practices to help ensure that they are sustainable and traceable. An initiative launched to tackle seafood mislabeling directly is the Better Seafood Board (BSB) started in 2007 by the National Fisheries Institute (NFI). Any company that is a member of the BSB takes a pledge not to sell any seafood that’s underweight, bears the wrong species name, or suggests an incorrect place of origin. Buying from companies or dining out at restaurants that are BSB members can be one way for a consumer to avoid seafood fraud.
Two other important certifications to look for or ask about when buying any seafood products are the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and the Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP). The MSC is an independent non-profit organization that sets a standard for sustainable fishing. Having an MSC certification means the given fishery wishes to demonstrate that they are well-managed and sustainable according to the science-based MSC standard. Having this MSC certification also means that the fishery is assessed by a team of experts independent of both the fishery and the MSC. When a seafood product displays this ecolabel, it can unquestionably be traced back through the supply chain to the MSC certified fishery.
Best Aquaculture Practices is the world’s most trusted, comprehensive, and proven third-party aquaculture certification program that currently exists. Since starting in 2002, BAP has been improving the environmental, social, and economic performance of the aquaculture supply chain and growing the global supply of responsibly farmed seafood. BAP certified aquaculture facilities are found all over the world including the United States, Central and South America, Vietnam, and India. Having a four-star BAP certification means all components of the aquaculture process are being audited and approved of through BAP’s standards. This includes the hatchery, the farm itself, the feed mill, and the processor.
Although solving the seafood fraud dilemma seems like a daunting world task as well as a huge point of concern for anyone who enjoys eating seafood, it is promising to know there are current steps in progress for helping solve this problem. Awareness is one of the first steps with any significant issue and as a consumer, one should make sure to inquire about where their seafood comes from and look for the reputable certifications to help assure what’s being purchased is authentic.
Photo features products of SSPI-Mid Atlantic/Dickies Seafood showcasing seafood containing both MSC certifications and four-star BAP ratings.