This post is by Environmental Defense Fund scientist Tim Fitzgerald.
The recent The New York Times story about two high school students who did DNA testing on fish shines a light once again on one of the seafood industry’s dirty little secrets — fish fraud. They found that one fourth of 60 samples of seafood taken in New York City restaurants and seafood markets were mislabeled.
But with lax FDA regulations and virtually no enforcement, the practice is more common than one would hope. In recent years, there have been numerous reports of fraud occurring around the country. Three years ago, a Times investigation also found that fish sold as wild Alaskan salmon by high-end New York City markets was mostly cheaper farm-raised salmon, selling for as much as $29 a pound. (See my previous post Plenty of Safe, Eco-Friendly Fish in the Sea.)
The U.S. Food Drug and Drug Administration, which oversees the safety of our seafood supply, defines fraud as the substitution of a less expensive fish for a more expensive kind, for example, tilapia for red snapper, farmed salmon for wild from Alaska, or basa or tra (Vietnamese catfish) for grouper.
Checklist: How to spot fish fraud
Being informed and knowing your seafood is the best way to arm yourself against fraud. Some things that should raise red flags are:
- A price too good to be true for a highly desired, expensive (and often depleted) fish like red snapper or grouper.
- Out-of-season fish, like wild salmon from Alaska being sold “fresh” in winter months. (It may have been previously frozen, or it may be farmed salmon.)
- Wacky labels you know not to be true, such as “farmed Chilean seabass” (only caught in the wild) or “wild Atlantic salmon” (an endangered species and not commercially available).
If you think you’re being served a less desirable substitute or a mislabeled fish, press the chef or fish seller for answers. A good purveyor will be familiar with this issue and should be comfortable addressing your concerns.
- For a list of Eco-Best Choices, see Environmental Defense Fund’s Seafood Selector.
- Find out more about buying eco-friendly fish.