Oceana, the oceans conservation group that’s earned a reputation for sniffing out fish fraud, is out with a new study on how consumers are even being fooled by America’s favorite seafood — shrimp purchased at restaurants and grocery stores. In the only known U.S. study using DNA testing on retail and restaurant shrimp, Oceana confirmed that 30 percent of the 143 products tested from 111 grocery stores and restaurants were misrepresented. It also found that consumers are often provided with little information about the shrimp they purchase, including where and how it was caught or farmed, making it difficult, if not impossible, for them to make informed choices. “Despite its popularity, U.S. consumers are routinely given little to no information about the shrimp they purchase,” said Beth Lowell, senior campaign director at Oceana. “While shrimp is the most commonly consumed seafood in the U.S., and the most highly traded seafood in the world, its high demand has led to conservation concerns as well as a bait and switch on consumers. Without tracking what, where and how our seafood is caught or farmed, and ensuring that this basic information follows the product through each step in the supply chain, shrimp will continue to be misrepresented.” Oceana found misrepresented shrimp everywhere it tested, including rates of 43 percent in New York, NY, 33 percent in Washington, D.C., 30 percent in the Gulf of Mexico region (Pensacola and Fort Walton Beach, FL; Mobile and Orange Beach, AL; Biloxi and Ocean Springs, MS; New Orleans, LA, and Houston and Galveston, TX), and 5 percent in Portland, OR. The study defined misrepresentation as products that were mislabeled (one species swapped out for another), misleading (e.g., farmed species labeled as “Gulf”), or mixed/mystery (e.g., commingling species among bagged shrimp). Overall, 35 percent of the 111 vendors visited nationwide sold misrepresented shrimp, the report stated. Of the 70 restaurants visited, 31 percent sold misrepresented shrimp, and 41 percent of the 41 grocery stores visited sold misrepresented products. However, shrimp purchased from grocery stores and restaurants were misrepresented at the same rate – 30 percent. “I’ve seen cute little cleaner shrimp in aquariums and while scuba diving, but never expected to find one on a grocery shelf,’” said Dr. Kimberly Warner, report author and senior scientist at Oceana. “We really know very little about the shrimp we eat, and the information we do get may not be trustworthy. Consumers have a right to know more about the shrimp they purchase in order to make more responsible choices.” Among the report’s other key findings were:
- The most common species substitution was farmed whiteleg shrimp sold as “wild” shrimp and “Gulf” shrimp.
- Forty percent of the 20 shrimp species or categories collected and identified were not previously known to be sold in the U.S.
- No samples labeled as “farmed” were mislabeled, while more than half of the samples labeled simply “shrimp” were actually a wild-caught species.
- A banded coral “shrimp,” which is an aquarium pet not intended to be consumed as food, was found commingled with another unidentified shrimp in a bag of frozen salad-sized shrimp purchased in the Gulf.
- Overall, 30 percent of more than 400 shrimp products surveyed in grocery stores lacked information on country of origin, 29 percent lacked farmed/wild information, and one in five did not provide either.
- The majority of the 600 restaurant menus surveyed did not provide the diner with any information on the type of shrimp, whether it was farmed/wild or its origin.
President Obama last June created a dedicated government task force to combat seafood fraud and help keep illegally caught fish out of the U.S. market. Oceana is encouraging the task force to take a comprehensive approach to addressing these issues, including requiring traceability for all seafood sold in the U.S. to ensure that it is safe, legally caught and honestly labeled. “Until traceability is the status quo, consumers should ask more questions about the seafood they purchase, including what kind it is, if it is wild or farm-raised, and where and how it was caught,” said Lowell. “And whenever possible, consumers should also support traceable seafood, which will tell the story of the product while helping to ensure that it is honestly labeled.” Since 2011, Oceana has worked to expose seafood fraud in the U.S. In a nationwide study released last year, Oceana found that 33 percent of the more than 1,200 fish samples it tested were not accurately labeled according to Food and Drug Administration guidelines.