These findings, published last week by ocean advocacy group Oceana, add New York to a growing list of major cities in which widespread seafood fraud has been discovered through DNA testing.
A recent investigation by the Boston Globe found that 48 percent of fish from restaurants, supermarkets and fish markets in Boston were mislabeled. Oceana unearthed a similar situation in Los Angeles this spring when it tested 119 samples of fish from area retailers and found that 55 percent were not the species consumers thought they were buying.
This most recent round of testing in New York City found that tuna was the most likely to be mislabeled. A full 94 percent of fish labeled ”white tuna” were revealed to be escolar, a fish banned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration because of the laxative effect it can have on those who consume it.
The group also found two instances in which tilefish was substituted for another type of fish. Tilefish, notes the report, is “on the FDA’s do-not-eat list because of its high mercury content.”
Out of 19 “snapper” samples taken, a total of 15 substitutions were discovered.
All 16 of the sushi restaurants included in the study were found to be selling mislabeled fish, according to the results.
Seafood Fraud: A Health Threat?
How concerned should consumers be about these findings? Does seafood fraud put people at risk or just cheat them out of better quality fish?
“The use of a false or misleading name may prevent correct species identification and thereby affect the ability of processors and consumers to make accurate assessments of the potential safety hazards associated with seafood,” says FDA in its introduction to the Seafood List, a list of all species names it accepts on labels for seafood. “Hazards such as allergenic proteins and scombrotoxin formation are associated with some species but not others, presenting potential food safety risks if the food is not accurately labeled.”
While it is possible that mislabeling fish could lead to an at-risk consumer eating the wrong fish, seafood fraud does not generally pose a major public health threat, says Ken Gall, a Seafood Technology Specialist for the New York Sea Grant at Cornell University Extension.
Subbing one fish for a similar type of fish – such as tilapia for snapper – is relatively harmless, he says, since fish in the same category, such as these white fish, generally have the same safety requirements for processing.
“It’s only a price issue, because from a taste and quality standpoint they’re essentially the same, and from a public health standpoint there’s no issue at all,” says Gall of subbing other white fish for snapper.
Dark-flesh fish, on the other hand, can be more dangerous because they contain histidine. When bacterial spoilage occurs, histidine produces enzymes that can convert to histamine and cause an allergic reaction. For this reason, dark-fleshed fish such as makarel, tuna or mahi mahi are subject to different controls. They must be monitored more often to make sure they are kept at low temperatures to control for bacteria.
However, if one dark-flesh fish is replaced with another, it will still be subject to the same histidine controls under the company’s Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points plan (HACCP), a processing safety plan that every processor is required to have in place, explains Gall. And dark-flesh fish is nearly impossible to pass off as white fish, he notes.
“Even though you might substitute one type of mackerel for another, it’s still going to be recognizable as a mackerel to almost everyone in the industry and they will know that it has to be handled in a HACCP plan for the histamine fish.”
As for the tilefish – a fish that is purportedly dangerous to pregnant women – that was found in two samples in this study, Gall says the tilefish found in New York City was likely a different tilefish from the kind subject to FDA’s warning, which is harvested from the Gulf of Mexico. Tilefish from the Hudson Canyon, the kind likely found in New York City, are not considered dangerous to pregnant women, he says.
Replacing an illegal fish like escolar for tuna, however, poses a mild health threat.
“The issue with escolar is the purgative effect,” says Gall. “It could be an uncomfortable thing, but it’s generally not a big health issue.”
Roger Tollefsen, President of the New York Seafood Council, questions the validity of the Oceana study, pointing out that “white tuna,” which the group said turned out to be escolar, is not a type of fish under FDA’s list of accepted fish labels. No fish can be correctly labeled as “white tuna,” he says, because it doesn’t exist.
“How many people were buying ‘white tuna’ that was legitimate? None. Because there’s no such thing,” says Tollefsen. “If 94 percent of the tuna that was tested was escolar, what was the other 6 percent? They just found a new species,” he jokes.
“The clear message to the consumer is don’t buy white tuna,” says Tollefsen of the study. “To me right now, what white tuna is is escolar. It’s a generic name that was given to this fish.”
Gall concurs: “The only reason people might use that term is because white meat, or albacore tuna, is something people are familiar with in the can, but there really is no species called white tuna and so you can pretty much bet that that’s a substitute.”
Nevertheless, mislabeling fish is foul play, says Gavin Gibbons, a representative for the National Fisheries Institute, a trade association that launched the Better Seafood Bureau in 2007. BSB members pledge their commitment to producing safe and correctly labeled seafood and agree to more extensive inspections.
“Even though it’s not really a food safety issue, if a company is willing to defraud its customers, what else is it willing to do?” asks Gibbons.
In the past, some seafood producers who were subbing one fish for another were also found to have been changing the expiration date on packaging to make fish seem fresher than it was, points out Kimberly Warner, Senior Scientist at Oceana and lead author of the New York City seafood study. This allows more time for histidine to develop into histamines as the fish decays.
“The perishability of seafood is a huge issue,” says Warner. “Chances of scromboid poisoning (illness from decaying fish) increases the longer the fish is out of the sea,” she says.
Tackling the Problem
Whether it is an economic issue, a health issue, or both, seafood fraud is an illegal, punishable crime – one that can be hard to detect.
“Seafood is so much more complicated than any other food commodity,” says Gall. “When you think about the possibility that there are 500 different species of fish and shellfish out there in the marketplace, it’s very difficult for even experts a lot of times to identify correctly what species they’re handling.”
A full 91 percent of seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), meaning that it can be difficult to trace mislabeled fish to its origins.
In 2009, the U.S. Government Accountability Office chastised FDA and other agencies responsible for seafood safety, saying there was more they could do to combat fraud.
“FDA examines only about 2 percent of imported seafood annually, and its primary seafood oversight program does not address economic fraud risks, which limits its ability to detect fraud,” GAO said in the document. “Because of the limited scope of FDA’s seafood oversight program, its mismanagement of the Seafood List, and its failure to update its guidance to reflect the allergen labeling requirement, consumers have less assurance that the seafood they purchase is correctly labeled.”
FDA has been maintaining its Fish List – a list of all accepted fish names – since 1988. Until 1993, the list did not include invertebrates such as mussels and clams. After updating the document, FDA renamed it the Seafood List. All seafood sold in the U.S. must belong to a species on the Seafood List, and be labeled accordingly.
Over the past few years, the government has been cracking down on fraudulent fish sales. Several dealers have been convicted of seafood fraud and most have been sentenced to jail time. Earlier this year a California company was fined $1 million for selling Asian catfish as grouper. In a 2010 case, three seafood dealers pled guilty to illegally importing 283,500 pounds of Vietnamese catfish, labeling the fish as sole and grouper and distributing it to over 65 restaurants, military installations and supermarkets in the Southeast. The perpetrators served a combined total of nearly 6 years in prison.
The National Fisheries Institute acts as a self-regulator for industry, providing a stamp of legitimacy to those who subscribe to the Better Seafood Bureau and closely monitoring members.
BSB works with FDA and the enforcement arm of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to detect seafood fraud and prosecute perpetrators.
However, as recent studies of seafood in large cities show, the problem persists.
To address the issue, U.S. Representatives Edward Markey (D-MA) and Barney Frank (D-MA) introduced the Safety and Fraud Enforcement for Seafood (SAFE Seafood) Act in July of 2012. The act would require full traceability for all seafood sold in the United States.
“Without strict accounting of the supply chain, a tracking number that follows the fish, you don’t really know where it’s coming from,” says Oceana’s Warner. “And fish have a very complex and obscure supply chain.”
Gibbons says the right regulations are already in place, but must be put into practice.
“The way we feel is that this is really an enforcement issue. There are rules and there are regulations already in place, but enforcement has been lacking. And as soon as we start to see a renewed focus on enforcement, we’ll start to see this issue turn around.”
“If you have a DNA test, a menu and an invoice, you should be able to tell where the fraud happened,” he says. “You don’t have to test every piece of fish that’s on the market. You just have to let people know you’re testing a percentage. For people who are committing fraud, that will serve as a strong deterrent.”
Tollefsen suggests simply using the recent evidence of seafood fraud to educate inspectors about what to look for.
“That’s just a memo on the board. Okay, inspectors, when you go out, look for white tuna.”
Who’s Being Fooled?
Experts agree that wholesalers are less likely to be fooled than a restauranteur.
“If I buy fish from a harvester, I know what I’m buying,” says Tollefsen, who was formerly in the fish business. “I have to know. Just like a diamond dealer knows what he’s buying. If I was a wholesaler and I bought a tilefish and had no idea it was something else, shame on me. I have no place in the business.”
Gall explains that by the time a fish gets to the restaurant, it might be in filet or steak form and less recognizable.
“There’s really few problems on the part of the fishermen and the wholesalers who sell those fish, they are experts, they have experience. But there are unscrupulous dealers.”
“It’s just really hard to get a handle on because the only way you can be sure is this kind of DNA testing,” Gall says.
In his opinion, it’s a matter of putting limited public health funds where they’ll make the most difference.
“These agencies have to prioritize their resources and they’re going to focus on high public health risk types of issues,” he says. Even given what’s going on, probably much more of an economic issue than a public health issue.”
While a restaurant patron or grocery store shopper will be the least likely to recognize fraudulent fish, there are some warning signs consumers can look out for.
First, consumers can ask where the seafood they’re buying came from, says Warner.
Another sign of fish fraud is a label that describes a type of fish not on FDA’s seafood list, such as “white tuna.” The full list is available here.
“The other issue that people need to be tuned into is price,” says Gall. “When you see a label like white tuna and a price that’s so much lower than other kinds of tuna, it’s a red flag that something’s probably going on.”
And for those who wish to be more proactive: “We need consumers to be able to demand that the fish we buy and feed ourselves is honestly labeled and ask questions about where it’s from and say that you care, that you would support having a traced seafood product available to you so that you can be sure that what you’re ordering is what you’re getting,” says Warner.
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