In the back of Super 88, the Asian market near my apartment, lay rows of wide-eyed fish packed in ice. I pass up the colossal catfish and choose the small, unassuming, and shiny silver pomfret for my first experience eating a fish whole. A friend and I stuff it with fresh ginger and shitake mushrooms then steam it on the stove top. It takes less than 10 minutes to cook and is more flavorful than any fish fillet I ever eaten.
I grew up cooking and eating typical Midwestern seafood—pre-packaged blocks of frozen flesh. If it weren’t for the label I’d call it mystery meat, but labels aren’t always trustworthy.
Consumers are deceived on a regular basis, according to a study released in February by the ocean conservation group Oceana. Oceana tested the DNA of an unprecedented 1,215 seafood samples taken from grocery stores and restaurants in 21 states between 2010 and 2012. The researchers found that one in three were mislabeled. The fish species most commonly misrepresented were tuna, salmon, red snapper, cod, and halibut.
Many people were outraged by the findings, and rightfully so. Consumers are paying for top- shelf fish and getting a bottom-shelf fraud instead. Escolar, an oily fish native to tropical and temperate waters, is a common tuna impostor banned in Japan but not in the U.S., according to the Massachusetts Bureau of Environmental Health. Cheaper and more abundant, the species contains toxic oil that causes gastrointestinal illness when just a few ounces of oil are ingested—which is easy to do during one meal. Other fish high in mercury often masquerade as snapper and halibut. In high enough doses, mercury can cause problems with fertility, blood pressure regulation, memory, vision, and sensation in the extremities among other things.
Diversifying America’s seafood diet is one way to avoid health hazards and combat fraud. With 1,700 species to choose from, knowingly choosing smaller sustainable species like clams, anchovies, and sardines over trendy over-fished species can help maintain biodiversity of the world’s most popular food source. Smaller species are cheaper, more abundant, reproduce faster, and accumulate fewer toxins than their larger counterparts. And since they aren’t as high-profile as other species, the chances of buying a fake are slim.
Another way to avoid eating imposter fish is to buy it whole instead of opting for packaged fillets—at least you get what you see. But convenience, cooking skills, and a fear of the unfamiliar often dictate consumer choices.
In 2011, Americans consumed a whopping 4.7 billion pounds of seafood—most of it processed and representative of only a handful of species—making us second only to China. Some mislabeling is unintentional, but it is often a deliberate attempt to avoid tariffs and pad the bottom line. Illegal and unregulated fishing costs the industry $23 billion annually in lost revenue. Unfortunately, the complexity of the current system makes it almost impossible to pinpoint where fraud occurs.
“The first thing we hear is ‘well, if FedEx can track a package why can’t we?’” said Steve Wilson, chief quality officer of NOAA’s UCSD Seafood Inspection Program. “The packages FedEx deliver start out as a whole package and end as a whole package, but with fish it’s more complicated. A pallet of fish will get cut up into 800 pieces and sent to at least 100 different locations.” Tracing each piece as it’s transferred from the fishermen to the numerous middlemen during processing and finally to the consumer is prohibitively expensive.
In March, U.S. Representative Edward Markey (D-Mass) re-introduced legislation that would require a fish to be traced from boat to plate and impose hefty fines on violators. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, 91 percent of the seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported from countries such as China, Thailand, and Ecuador among other places; most U.S. inspection programs are voluntary. Only two percent of imports are inspected, and only .001 percent is inspected for fraud. And while tracking may help combat fraud in the future, it will only be effective with international cooperation.
Ultimately, combating fish fraud is in the hands of the consumer. Since labels are unreliable, making informed, sustainable choices by purchasing less-popular, whole fish protects both wallets and health. If the average American can overcome his or her distaste for scales, bones, and staring eyes—which shouldn’t be difficult since lobsters are so popular—they’ll also discover fish on the bone tastes better than a processed fillet.
Originally published at Boston University News Service, September 21, 2013.