A fishy tale

More than a third of the shrimp products sold in North America are misrepresented, according to new research on seafood fraud.

In October 2014, Oceana, the largest advocacy organization focused solely on ocean conservation, issued a report that alerted consumers to a problem few had likely ever considered: seafood fraud.

The report focused on shrimp, which Oceana noted is the most commonly consumed seafood in the US, with more than a billion pounds eaten annually. It is also the most highly traded seafood in the world. "With shrimp," the organization said, "it is almost impossible to know what you are getting."

In 2012, 89% of the shrimp consumed in the US was imported, primarily from Southeast Asia and Latin America. "More than half the shrimp traded globally is farm-raised, and the majority of that is just one species, white-leg shrimp," Oceana said. The majority of domestic shrimp comes from states in the Gulf region, with some farming done in Washington, DC, New York state and Oregon.

For its study, Oceana surveyed shrimp in grocery stores and restaurants to see what information consumers received and compared it with what they actually got. Its investigation included surveying how shrimp were labeled on menus and in grocery stores and collecting samples for genetic species identification.

Oceana discovered that 30% of the 143 shrimp products it tested from 111 vendors were misrepresented, and 35% of the vendors sold misrepresented shrimp. Of the 70 restaurants it visited, 31% sold misrepresented products, while 41% of the 41 grocery stores and markets visited sold misrepresented products.

"The most common species substitution was farmed white-leg shrimp sold as ‘wild’ shrimp and ‘Gulf’ shrimp," Oceana reported. "A banded coral ‘shrimp,’ which is an aquarium pet not intended to be consumed as food, was found commingled with another unidentifiable shrimp in a bag of frozen wild salad-sized shrimp."

Interestingly, New York City had the highest amount of misrepresented shrimp at 43%.

Overall, 30% of the shrimp products surveyed in grocery stores "lacked information on country of origin, 29% lacked farmed/wild information and one in five did not provide either. The majority of restaurant menus surveyed did not provide any information on the type of shrimp, whether it was farmed/wild or its origin."

The worst offences involved the most desired and most expensive shrimp, Forbes magazine said in an article about the Oceana report. "It was worse for the highest value and most desirable shrimp. Ruby Red is a very rare species, a delicacy that has only been found to date in three places on earth, two of them along the Gulf Coast off Florida and Alabama, and they are typically only available locally because they are very delicate and don’t ship well. Not surprisingly, as a result, every single shrimp labeled Ruby Red that Oceana tested was fake, in direct violation of FDA labeling rules. Ditto for the also popular rock shrimp, which failed 100% of the time. On the worldwide shrimp market, wild caught shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico routinely command the highest prices, but a third of the Gulf labeled shrimp were actually farmed."

The Hill, a Washington-based publication, sloughed off suggestions that the findings were inconsequential: "Misrepresented shrimp may seem like a miniscule problem, but it matters to consumers. Apart from misleading consumers, mislabeling shrimp and other seafood can be dangerous for public health. For instance, some of the mislabeled ‘wild-caught’ shrimp in this new study could have been farmed foreign shrimp species that contain aquaculture chemicals banned from use in the US. The vast majority of the over 600 restaurant menus surveyed did not have any information on the shrimp’s origins. It’s clear that seafood buyers are given very little information about the shrimp they purchase."

Oceana was not surprised by its findings. "Everywhere that we look for seafood fraud, we find it. These results mirror Oceana’s previous work on fish mislabeling, where one-third of over 1,000 fish samples collected at the retail level from restaurants and grocery stores across the country were mislabeled according to Food and Drug Administration guidelines."

Forbes magazine echoed Oceana’s concerns, which it saw as the latest in food fraud cases. "Bogus Kobe beef. Bad sushi. Poseur parmesan. Bastardized olive oil. Tainted honey. Horsemeat swapped for beef. Fake fish on menus and in stores nationwide. If you love good food, there’s always another scary scandal around the corner, another shoe waiting to drop."

Forbes accused the seafood industry of being "rife with fraud, mislabeling, health concerns and dangerous criminal substitutions for years ... to the point where it is almost impossible for consumers to buy certain popular — and expensive — fish, like red snapper, without getting ripped off. Farmed salmon, which can be fed antibiotics and meat products far from their natural diet and have to be dyed pink, are routinely sold as more desirable and higher priced wild caught salmon. These Oceana studies are hardly alone and have been confirmed and reconfirmed by universities, DNA testing and news studies."

Before the release of Oceana’s report, the organization had received an unexpected endorsement of its ongoing campaign against seafood fraud from President Obama’s administration. In June 2014, the White House released a Presidential Memorandum to address the economic, environmental, health and safety challenges of seafood fraud. A task force was directed to report to the president within 180 days with "recommendations for the implementation of a comprehensive framework of integrated programs to combat [illegal, unreported and unregulated] fishing and seafood fraud."

In October 2014, the US Food and Drug Administration launched an online module to help groups, including state regulators, "ensure the proper labeling of seafood products offered for sale in the US marketplace."

"This effort is an important step that will help states focus on enforcement as well as industry focus on compliance," said Lisa Weddig, secretary of the Better Seafood Board. "Recently we have seen states working on new legislation to combat seafood fraud when these laws are already on the books. While well-intended, efforts to pass new regulations have been a distraction that’s focused resources away from application and execution and on to politics."

Canada is by no means exempt from seafood fraud. In 2011, the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario at the University of Guelph examined samples from five Canadian cities and found that 41% of the fish it looked at were mislabeled.

Among the study’s findings, the CBC reported, was that red snapper and tuna are the most frequently mislabeled species (87% and 59%, respectively). Only seven of the 120 red snapper samples tested correctly. And 84% of white tuna samples were actually escolar, which can cause digestive issues for some people.

The Canadian study was by no means the first to uncover seafood fraud. In 2008, two New York high school students "took on a science project in which they checked 60 samples of seafood using a simplified genetic fingerprinting technique to see whether the fish New Yorkers buy is what they think they are getting," The New York Times reported. "They found that one-fourth of the fish samples with identifiable DNA were mislabeled. 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. Roe supposedly from flying fish was actually from smelt. Seven of nine samples that were called red snapper were mislabeled, and they turned out to be anything from Atlantic cod to Acadian redfish, an endangered species."

Dubbed "sushi-gate," the investigation garnered considerable attention at the time but likely had little long-term impact on the average North American consumer of fish.

The average person likely can’t tell one type of shrimp or tuna from another. CBC’s Marketplace published a blog item to help consumers identify seafood, although it pointed out the difficulties in trying to do so. "Eco-labels are a good start in selecting sustainable seafood, but there is not yet one universally accepted certification program. In Canada there are also no nationwide standards for organic farmed seafood."

While consumers get outraged if horsemeat is substituted for beef, they don’t seem upset about mislabeled seafood, Mike Nagy, a sustainable food systems consultant in Ontario, told CBC Radio. "Somehow in our psyche, especially in Central Canada where we are not tied to the coast, seafood is off our radar," he said. According to Nagy, consumers who fall for seafood mislabeling are not only paying more for lower-grade items, they might also be buying fish that is unsustainable or carries potential health risks.

P. T. Barnum once boasted that there’s a sucker born every minute. Based on the findings of Oceana and other investigators, when it comes to seafood, consumers are not only easily duped but they might also be eating sucker while thinking it’s freshwater trout.