We've All Been Suckered Into This Major Food Fraud

Illustrated by: Zhang Qingyun.
Something fishy is happening in restaurants and supermarkets all over the country, and we’ve all been falling for it — hook, line, and sinker. Oceana, a non-profit ocean conservation organization, discovered that one-third of fish samples collected nationally were mislabeled according to Food and Drug Administration guidelines. What does this mean? Basically, the hard-earned cash you’ve been spending on fish, like snapper and grouper, might actually turn out to be tilefish and Asian catfish.

Fish fraud is most widespread at sushi venues — 74% of sushi venues that Oceana sampled were serving mislabeled fish (38% of restaurants and 18% of grocery stores were also serving up ‘fake’ fish). One of the things that’s so tough about fighting fish fraud is that it’s hard to tell who got suckered first: Did the person who caught the fish misrepresent the species and how they caught it? Did the packager intentionally put an erroneous label on it? Did the restaurant or market switch it out for something cheaper? The problem is so bad that President Obama established a government task force to work on combatting illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing and seafood fraud last year, and it released its final recommendations in March.

Why does this matter? Firstly, consumers should get what they pay for — not a cheaper substitute. Secondly, the seafood substitutions that Oceana uncovered included high levels of mercury (for example, king mackerel being sold as grouper). Last but not least, fish fraud hurts our oceans. Many substituted fish are often overfished, imperiled, or are a vulnerable species sold as a more sustainable catch (like Atlantic halibut sold as Pacific halibut).

Here are some ways to avoid being punked by fish fraud:

EAT FROM THE BOTTOM UP
For the safest and most affordable option, think small: mussels, herring, and anchovies have low levels of toxins and are caught in more sustainable ways, than many of their larger predators. Eating from the bottom of the food chain means you are choosing fish that are more abundant, sustainable, and affordable.

DON'T BE LURED BY PRICING
Check the price. Oceana’s senior campaign director Beth Lowell says, "If the price is too good to be true, it probably is, and you may be victim to a bait and switch." If your local store is selling wild-caught Pacific salmon for $3 per pound, that’s probably too good to be true.

BUY WHOLE
Purchase the whole fish if possible. Skinless fillets are easy to swap, but buying the fish whole makes it more difficult to disguise one species for another. Unsure of how to make whole fish? It’s easy, painless, and delicious!


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