Thought that sole you just ordered was, well, actually sole? How about that snapper you just got on sale at the supermarket? You might want to think again: according to two new reports — one by the Boston Globe and the other by Consumer Reports — a surprising level of fish mislabeling occurs in both restaurants and supermarkets.
Even though fish mislabeling has been documented before, these two recent reports underscore how rampant the practice is. The Boston Globe tested the DNA of 183 orders of fish at various outlets in the Boston area and found that a higher percentage were mislabeled (48%) than were correct (46%), with a small fraction having inconclusive results. Some of the substitutions were particularly egregious: “All 23 white tuna samples tested as some other type of fish, usually escolar, which is nicknamed the ex-lax fish by some in the industry because of the digestion problems it can cause.” That’s pretty gross.
Consumer Reports used a pretty similar methodology in their test — comparing the DNA of 190 fish orders in the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut area. Unlike the Globe report, which focused on ordering fish that often gets mislabeled, CR did a more random test, looking at all kinds of fish. Their outcomes, though, were no more promising: more than 20% of the fish they looked at were mislabeled, with only four species always labeled correctly. In this case, the most mislabeled fish were sole and red snapper, which are easily confused with other types of fish.
There are several reasons why this is a huge problem for consumers (besides the most obvious “ex-lax” related issue). Some fish species that are notoriously high in mercury were substituted for low mercury species — a huge potential health problem for pregnant mothers or others sensitivity to mercury. For consumers who are interested in living sustainably, mislabeling poses a similar problem. Economically, this means that consumers are losing money whenever they buy a cheaper fish for the expensive price. Finally, for people with seafood allergies or religious dietary restrictions, replacing one fish for another poses obvious problems.
All of this comes down to the fact that there’s just not enough resources focused on oversight. As CR points out, “state officials told us that their inspectors aren’t trained to differentiate among fish species and that they focus their limited resources on food safety.” With outbreaks of salmonella, e. coli and listeria to worry about, as long as the food is not literally poisonous, the regulators just cannot keep up. At the same time, though, Americans deserve to know where their food comes from — and what that food is. Until the government takes some responsibility for enforcing its own regulations, the best that health and environmentally conscious consumers can do is purchase fish only from those outlets that are 100% sustainable and traceable.
Photo from malias via flickr.