Another investigation has detailed the common practice of fish fraud in the United States. This time it’s New York State Attorney General Barbara D. Underwood’s office who’s out with a report titled ““Fishy Business: Seafood Fraud and Mislabeling in New York State Supermarkets.”
Since Oceana, the global environmental group, found fish fraud to be a routine practice in the U.S., state and federal law enforcement on both coasts have made criminal cases over the practice stick. The problem is so acute The National Fisheries Institute (NFI) created the Better Seafood Board as seafood industry-led initiative to get rid of fish fraud.
The New York Attorney General’s study details high levels of suspected seafood fraud and mislabeling at New York State supermarket chains. The AG’s investigation, which included DNA testing, found that more than one in four samples purchased was not sold under a federally-recognized market name for that species.
Mislabeling of certain popular species was rampant – including “wild” salmon (27.59 percent of samples sold as “wild” salmon were mislabeled), red snapper (67 percent were mislabeled), and lemon sole (87.5 percent were mislabeled). The substitutes were often cheaper, less desirable, and less environmentally sustainable species. This includes farm-raised salmon sold as wild salmon, lane snapper sold as red snapper, and swai sold as lemon sole.
“It’s clear that seafood fraud isn’t just a fluke – it’s rampant across New York,” said Attorney General Underwood. “Supermarkets are the last line of defense before a phony fish ends up as family dinner, and they have a duty to do more. Yet our report makes clear that New Yorkers may too often be the victim of mislabeling.
“We’re taking enforcement action, and consumers should be alert and demand that their supermarket put customers first by taking serious steps to ensure quality control at their seafood counters.”
From late 2017 through 2018, the Attorney General’s office (OAG) undertook the first significant government investigation in the U.S. to target seafood fraud at retail supermarket chains. The OAG purchased seafood based on availability at 155 locations across 29 supermarket brands, targeting seafood from nine distinct categories, including red snapper; snapper varieties other than red; grouper; cod; wild salmon including chum, Coho, sockeye, and king; halibut; lemon sole; sole varieties other than lemon; striped bass; and white tuna.
OAG then sent the samples for testing by the Ocean Genome Legacy Center, an academic laboratory at Northeastern University. The report details the DNA barcoding method that OAG used to test seafood purchases and mislabeling, as well as certain limitations associated with the results. For example, because seafood selections and availability vary substantially, no two chains had the same variety and number of samples collected. The results are therefore illustrative, but not representative.
The Attorney General’s report details several significant findings using this approach:
- More than one in four (26.92 percent) seafood purchases with an identifiable barcode were mislabeled. About two-thirds of the supermarket brands reviewed had at least one instance of suspected mislabeling.
- A small subset of supermarket brands was responsible for a vastly disproportionate share of suspected mislabeling. Of the 12 chains with 10 or more samples tested, five had rates of alleged mislabeling that exceeded 50 percent — Food Bazaar, Foodtown, Stew Leonard’s, Uncle Giuseppe’s, and Western Beef. These five received enforcement letters from OAG seeking further information, including details on their seafood quality control practices. The retailers could face financial penalties.
- While mislabeling affected virtually every tested seafood category, there was rampant mislabeling found in certain species. The results suggest that consumers who buy lemon sole, red snapper, and grouper are more likely to receive an entirely different fish. Similarly, consumers who purchased “wild” salmon often got farm-raised fish they had paid on average 34 percent more to avoid.
- The substitutes were typically cheaper, less desirable species. Snappers sold as red snapper, for example, tended to sell for half as much when accurately labeled as another type of snapper. Some substitutes, such lane snapper, had higher mercury levels or came from less sustainable fisheries than the intended species, raising consumer safety and environmental sustainability issues.
- Seafood mislabeling occurred across most regions of New York but was most widespread downstate. New York City had a staggering mislabeling rate of 42.65 percent across all samples tested. The sampling revealed similarly high rates of mislabeling on Long Island at 40.63 percent and an only slightly lower rate in Westchester and Rockland Counties, which both had 32.43 percent.
The report warns consumers to be on alert for seafood pricing that seems too good to be true, as it often signals problems. The report also encourages consumers to demand that their supermarkets provide precise labeling of the seafood they sell and describe their seafood quality and sustainability practices.
Retailers, however, are ultimately responsible for accurately marketing seafood. The report concludes with a series of best practices already in effect at certain supermarkets – including rigorous vetting of seafood suppliers, oversight of individual supermarket locations and staff, and careful labeling. The Attorney General urges all supermarkets to adopt these best practices.
The investigation was conducted by Attorney General Investigator Michael Christian and Supervising Investigator Harry Czosnykowski, under the Supervision of Deputy Chief Investigator Jonathan Wood. Investigators Ray Almodovar and Brian Metz also assisted in the collection and preservation of evidence, under the supervision of Supervising Investigator Michael Leahy.
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