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Is That Grouper on Your Plate? Seafood Fraud Hits Diners Hard

By 3p Contributor

By Jerry Nelson

For decades, sushi fanatics could relax in knowing that their carp was mercury-free and fresh. Now, the "fruits of the sea" are not what they appear.

Seafood fraud is flourishing and ranges from mislabeling traditional menu items to overcharging customers.

The stakes have become so significant that a fundamental piece of the Trans-Pacific Partnership is seeking a mutual commitment to stop illicit fishing and damaging supports.

In June, the Obama administration published a new fleet of actions intended at restricting black-marketing fishing and other sorts of seafood fraud.

Types of fraud

Seafood fraud is yet another type of fraud that consists of several forms but boils down to one idea: the sticker on the wrapper does not correctly represent the product within. Even something as seemingly benign as swapping native fish with farm-raised fish is fraud.

Species swapping is another example. For example: Some restaurants sell "white tuna" but substitutes it with escolar, also called the "Ex-Lax Fish."

One fraudulent activity is common but legal and simple: name the fish with something other than a fishy sounding name.  The FDA keeps a list of agreeable names, and some of the original names may shock you. "Orange" was first called "slimehead," as just one example.

Mislabeling makes up the largest percentage of fraud being fought inside the industry.


In 18 years, Trey Knotts, a forensic scientist, has seen over 2,000 catfish filets in disguise.

Recently he's seen a growing number of mislabeled species coming in at a weight of up to a half-million pounds per shipment.

"There are companies importing millions of pounds of fish under fraudulent labeling," Knotts says.

Less than 1 percent of imported seafood is inspected for mislabeling. Knotts points out that the NOAA has less than 100 inspectors. "If you consider the coastline of America, it's a massive amount of territory to be covered," he says.

What is being done with the leaky seafood system? Research conducted by Kimberly Warner of Oceana exposed the size of the problem. One of the loftiest undertakings so far will be for federal agencies such as the NOAA and FDA to coordinate investigations into seafood fraud. With new tools — such as Grouperchek — the government and private industry seem to be close to joint-fighting mislabeled seafood.

Foreign fisheries in countries such as Thailand, Indonesia, Canada, China, Ecuador and Vietnam are unanimously blamed for seafood fraud. Seafood from these countries come mislabeled from unregulated fish farms. The biggest offenders are Thailand and Vietnam with endless supplies of Asian catfish available for export and labeled as grouper or other in-demand fish.

With the majority of fraud originating overseas, American regulators are focusing their attention on those imports. In December 2014, a presidential task force started began to recommend how the government could best fight seafood fraud. Recommendations included increased international collaboration on labeling and highlighted an urgent need for improved seafood tracking.

A 1976 law, the Magnuson-Stevens Act, regulates fisheries and controls overfished species such as speckled hind, an endangered fish often labeled as grouper. The law also protects the overfished Atlantic halibut, often sold as Pacific halibut.

The daily contact with mislabeled fish has made Knotts wary about seafood fraud even when he's not at work. He rarely brings his dinner into the lab for testing, but his work has increased his suspicions.

"Each time you see grouper on the list of options, you go, 'hmmmm ... ,'" he says.

Leaders fighting seafood fraud

Oceana has been the leader in exposing seafood fraud globally. In America, Oceana led a several studies to determine the size of the problem. The Oceana seafood fraud report collected 1,200 seafood samples from over 650 retail outlets in 20 states to determine the validity of their labeling. DNA testing found that 33 percent of the samples analyzed were mislabeled.

Oceana's campaign moved President Obama to establish the task force that has started making recommendations to stop seafood fraud.

Tampa-based PureMolecular has developed fist-sized machines that can help retailers determine the actual species of fish being purchased or sold.

John Paul, PureMolecular's CEO, said the technology produces results within 45 minutes. Genetically, only 0.02 percent of imported fish is analyzed. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration tests take up to a week to produce results

How consumers can protect themselves

While the fishing trade persists in being something of an untamed Wild West, consumers can guard themselves against eating contaminated or mislabeled fish. Activists are starting to lead a demand for seafood transparency that is reminiscent of the change in dairy that demanded milk without added steroids be available.

Consumers can demand to know where and how their seafood is caught. Asking lawmakers to require stricter penalties for mislabeling and showing support for the seafood fraud elements of the Trans-Pacific Partnership are two more actions that will go a long way to promoting sustainable fisheries.

In the meantime, consumers should be careful what goes on their plate.

Don't fall for the "bait and switch."

Jerry Nelson is an American freelance writer and photographer covering social justice issues globally. When not traveling, he lives in Buenos Aires with his wife Alejandra and their cat, Tommy. Follow him on Twitter.

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