As a consumer, it bothered me when I learned that restaurants and retailers were passing off cheaper fish for more expensive species—who likes fraud?—but until I attended the Seafood Substitution panel at the International Boston Seafood Show 2012, I never really thought about the implications for seafood sustainability.
Last fall, the Boston Globe published an expose revealing that half of the seafood tested was mislabled or substituted for another species. This wasn’t a fluke. Oceana, an international organization working to protect the world’s oceans, has conducted similar studies and found mislabeling “from hook to plate” at all levels of the supply chain and in all parts of the U.S.
“Seafood fraud isn’t just a consumer threat,” Oceana’s Gilbert Brogan stated. “It threatens management of the oceans,” and can lead to overfishing of restricted species. When consumers buy mislabeled fish, they may think that they’re purchasing species that the sustainability guides have identified as good choices, but they could inadvertently be purchasing red listed fish.
Mislabeling and substitution can also create food safety issues. For example, escolar, which is banned in some countries due to potential health hazards, often appears on sushi menus, labeled as “white tuna.” Pregnant women seeking to avoid fish high in mercury may inadvertently eat fish they don’t want because the products have been mislabeled.
According to Steven Wilson, the chief quality officer for seafood inspection program at NOAA, mislabeling concerns have been increasing “exponentially” over the past 10-15 years because 85 percent or more of what we consume is imported, and so much of it is processed (it’s much harder to determine fraud in processed fish than when you can see the whole fish).
We don’t need more legislation, according to Lisa Weddig, Director of Technology and Regulatory affairs at the National Fisheries Institute, because we already have laws at the federal and state levels. “Oversight and enforcement will deter cheaters,” she said. She pointed to the cover story in the March, 2012 issue of SeaFood Business, which described how recent seafood fraud convictions had resulted in millions of dollars in fines and forfeitures as well as jail time, as a hopeful sign.
The federal, state and local government agencies responsible for cracking down on fraud, however, are underfunded and don’t coordinate their efforts. Food safety issues take priority over economic fraud. Less than 1 percent of imported food is inspected by the FDA.
Fortunately, new approaches and solutions are being initiated that may make it easier and less expensive to combat this problem. Agencies are starting to use DNA barcoding to test seafood for mislabeling. Third-party certifiers often require traceability and tracking, and new technologies like QR codes and iPhone apps are making it possible for consumers as well as suppliers to be able to find out who caught or raised the fish and how it has been handled through every point of the supply chain. If these tools and technologies are adopted, seafood suppliers will reduce their liability, the seafood supply will be protected, and consumers can feel more confident that they are actually getting the species that they wanted.
Ultimately, strategies that reduce fraud and increase traceability will also help ensure that seafood is more sustainable–and I care a lot more about that than being overcharged occasionally.