Facing an epidemic of mislabeled seafood

Is that 'red snapper' you bought really red snapper?

In 2004, a team of scientists in my research lab, then at the University of North Carolina, used DNA sequencing to show that at least 60% of fish sold as red snapper in markets across the U.S. were mislabeled and were other species. The seafood industry responded by saying seafood substitutions were “not common” and described our results as “overstated.”

Ten years later, it's commonly accepted that seafood mislabeling is epidemic. Another DNA-based investigation, by ocean conservation organization Oceana, last year showed that one-third of more than 1,200 fish tested in the U.S. were not truthfully labeled according to U.S. Food and Drug Administration guidelines.

What about red snapper? A whopping 93% of fish labeled “red snapper” in the 2013 study were found to be species other than Lutjanus campechanus, the FDA's legally designated common name for red snapper. Today, your “red snapper” could be one of at least 28 different species, including much less desirable fish such as tilapia and pollock.

Higher standards for seafood labeling are long overdue. It's time for the U.S. to require that consumers be given proper and verifiable information about their seafood, including what species it is, where and how it was caught and whether it was raised on a farm or in the wild.

Help may finally be on the horizon. This month, the Presidential Task Force on Combating Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing and Seafood Fraud is expected to make recommendations about how seafood should be handled, marketed and labeled. The task force will also weigh in with recommendations for how to fight illegal fishing — a serious problem that threatens species, ecosystems and the livelihoods of people who harvest seafood according to laws and traditions that maintain sustainable fisheries.

Illegal fishing is a huge issue because the U.S. imports 90% of its seafood. According to a study in April in the journal Marine Policy, 20% to 32% of wild-caught seafood coming into the U.S. originates from illegal or unreported sources. Intentional mislabeling of seafood makes this illegal trade possible — and it's a $23-billion global business.

Inaccurately labeled seafood is also a potential health issue. For example, in Hawaii there is a local specialty called poke (pronounced poh-kay) that is most often made from ahi, the Hawaiian name for two different species of tuna whose flesh is a distinct red color. The labels on ahi poke at many groceries usually say either “previously frozen, Philippines” or “fresh, locally caught.”

Because I know something about these fisheries, I think that the “ahi” from the Philippines is very likely yellowfin but the “locally caught” ahi might be bigeye. But I can't be sure because once they are chopped up in soy sauce and sesame oil, I can't tell the difference, and I do research in this field. How is anyone else supposed to figure it out?

Distinguishing yellowfin tuna from bigeye tuna is crucial because a 2010 study by researchers at the American Museum of Natural History in New York concluded that bigeye contains twice as much mercury as yellowfin. Mercury levels in many of the bigeye exceeded the maximum allowed by the FDA and both the bigeye and yellowfin had more mercury than the maximum daily consumption levels considered safe by the Environmental Protection Agency. Yet “tuna” is the only FDA-approved market name for all 14 species of tuna sold in the U.S.

Recent research has also shown that mercury levels can vary substantially within a single species, not just because of the size of the fish but also because of where the fish lived. Current country-of-origin labeling won't necessarily help solve this potential problem because many fish are caught in one country and processed in another. Generally, only the country that processed the fish is the one reported at the time of import and sale.

Fraud, illegal fishing, food safety and unfair competition created by fraudulent marketing are all excellent reasons to end seafood mislabeling. But the rampant mislabeling of “red snapper” also says something about the broader impact of the practice: Mislabeling effectively conceals the reality of overfishing from consumers, distorting the true retail availability of species. It helps obscure depletion of fish stocks and the ensuing replacement of popular species with less-desirable ones.

The president's task force can help bring honesty to the labeling process by developing requirements to ensure that seafood originates from a legal fishery, that it is tracked in the supply chain, and that consumers are provided with accurate and truthful information about their seafood.

As one of the world's largest importers of seafood, the U.S. economy exerts an enormous amount of influence on worldwide patterns of fishing and trade. The task force should act now to push the global market to reduce fraud, improve food safety, protect consumers and empower them to make informed decisions about seafood. If this happens, expect to see far less “red snapper” on the menu.

Peter Marko is an associate professor of biology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

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