Fishy Business

March 3, 2013

Have you ever seen these places that feature “fish sandwiches”? I always think, “Well, that’s kind of general.” I mean, I wouldn’t order something called a “meat sandwich,” would you?
     — George Carlin

As the late comedian George Carlin pointed out, many menus, particularly in fast food restaurants, are not too informative about the ingredients of their fish sandwiches.  It may be, though, that their practice is more honest than that of some much tonier and more expensive establishments.

The Washington Post reported, in a recent article, that consumers buying fish run a considerable risk of getting something other than what the label says.   The ocean conservation organization, Oceana, conducted an investigation from 2010 through 2012, collecting more than 1,200 seafood samples from 674 retail outlets in 21 states to determine if they were honestly labeled.  The results, while not entirely surprising, are not good news for seafood lovers: on the order of one-third of the fish offered for sale in groceries and restaurants is mislabeled.

Ninety-five percent of the sushi restaurants, 52 percent of other restaurants and 27 percent of grocery stores surveyed sold mis­labeled seafood.

The study, in the interest of fairness,  did not identify the establishments surveyed, because it is in general not possible to determine where the mislabeling originated.  (You can download a copy of the study [PDF] from the Oceana site; there is also a summary [PDF] of key findings.)

Ordering some varieties of fish almost guarantees that the customer will get something else.  Fish labeled snapper was something else (often tilapia, a cheaper fish) in 87% of the samples tested.  Tuna was also frequently mislabeled, with 59% of the samples labeled tuna being something else.  The samples collected by Oceana included 46 varieties of fish; of these, 27 varieties were sometimes mislabeled.  Of the grocery stores, restaurants, and sushi venues sampled, 44% sold at least some mislabeled fish.  Of the outlets sampled, 18% of grocery stores, 38% of restaurants, and 74% of sushi venues had mislabeled fish.

Incorrectly labeled fish was found all over the US.  For example, 39% of the samples from New York City were mislabeled; in Chicago, the figure was 32%, in Denver 36%, and in Southern California 52%.  Every snapper sample from Washington DC was mislabeled, and every sushi venue sampled there had mislabeled fish.

Some questionable labeling may exist for historical reasons.   For example, some sushi establishments offer “white tuna”, which usually turns out to be a species called escolar; “white tuna” is not the name of any specific species of fish.  The term is also used to designate the kind of albacore tuna that comes in cans.  Sometimes, too, new names for fish species are introduced for marketing reasons.  The Post article cites the case of the Patagonian toothfish, which sold much better (and actually became a threatened species) once it was relabeled as Chilean sea bass.  Another change for marketing reasons was relabeling of the dolphin fish (Coryphaena hippurus or C. equiselis) as mahi-mahi, so that customers would not think they were eating Flipper.

There are some potential health implications of this widespread mislabeling, too  Escolar, the fish called “white tuna”, can cause severe digestive distress in some individuals.  Some of the substitute fish, such as tilefish and king mackerel, are identified by the FDA as being inadvisable for sensitive groups, on account of high levels of mercury.

Some of the problem, I think, comes from the American propensity to prefer food that is divorced, as much as possible, from its natural origins.  Even leaving aside frozen and packaged foods, most fresh meat and seafood in the US is sold wrapped in little plastic trays.  In contrast, the neighborhood fishmonger in London, where I lived for about six years, always had whole fish displayed for sale.  On business and holiday trips to France, I often ate in restaurants where the fish were laid out on ice in a display case; the diner was invited to inspect them and make a selection. In most US restaurants, you will not find anything resembling a whole fish,

These results, while disturbing, are not particularly surprising.  We have seen before that food products and medicines have been contaminated by ingredients from unscrupulous suppliers; bogus electronic parts have found their way into defense systems.  One of the unintended consequences of economic globalization has been the development of supply chains that are long and frequently rather opaque.  According to Oceana, more than 90% of the seafood consumed in the US is imported, and only a very small percentage of that is inspected by government regulators.

There are some efforts underway to address the problem.  One idea is to tag fish with a traceable ID number, so that prospective purchasers can determine its origin.  A seafood supplier in Washington DC, Profish Ltd., has its own tracing program called FishPrint that it offers to its commercial customers.  I hope these efforts will succeed.  If they do, not only will consumers be better informed, but conservation programs will also benefit.

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