When The Fish We Order is Not the Fish We Get
A few years back, when conscientious consumers were more concerned with the origins of their feedlot burgers than the pedigree of the fish on their plate, a few intrepid investigators uncovered a very fishy conspiracy. Back in 2008, it took two New York City high school students just a few weeks of sleuthing to discover that, at least, one-forth of fish samples collected from some of the cities most popular seafood markets and sushi destinations were mislabeled. For instance, A piece of sushi sold as the luxury treat white tuna turned out to be Mozambique tilapia, a much cheaper fish that is often raised by farming. This practice is hardly new, as there exist reports dating back to the early 1960s that detail the intentional mislabeling of fish in an effort to pass pollock off as cod. Since the 2008 exposé, similar reports have uncovered the apparent unreliability of fish labeling, whether on a menu or in a market and the confidence of the American (as well as international) seafood lover has plummeted.
Because of all this fish insecurity caused by inherently deceptive labeling practices involving cheap fish being mislabeled as more desirable and more expensive varieties, the FDA is going to begin using a DNA barcoding technique to insure the identities of the fish we eat. An organization called the Consortium for the Barcode of Life (yes, this is a real organization) is speaking with restaurant groups and seafood wholesalers to put the technology — which is said to work something like a retail barcode scanner — in use on a massive scale. This barcoding technology, as the AP reports, is essentially a standardized fingerprint that can identify a species like a supermarket scanner reads a barcode. This effort will hopefully cease the mislabeling of both locally produced and imported seafood in the United States, if everything goes as planned.
The Barcode of Life Database so far includes more than 167,000 species and hopes to foster a sort of self-regulating system within the retail and wholesale fish market by the high-end trade embracing barcoding as a mark of quality, as well as safety. The details on how the barcoding actually works are a bit hazy and the proposed system poses some interesting questions about what it means to DNA test an entire species (not every fish can, or will be, DNA tested. Instead they will rely on a sample of fish). But in a consumer culture that is continually on the hunt for a more reliable, and less dubious, seafood supply, it seems likely that this barcoding approach will likely take hold.
How does the idea of barcoding and DNA testing your fish filet sit with you? Is it a necessary evil or a misguided, and flagrant, use of science? Which is worse: eating a mislabeled fish or eating a fish that has been subjected to a DNA test? Do you have confidence in this new fangled technology to maintain the integrity of our seafood supply?