The seafood industry is filled with illegal yet common scams.
No one would be foolish enough to try to pass beef as chicken; yet, restaurants, grocery stores, and suppliers can be overly creative and deceitful when catfishing customers with fish! We're talking about seafood fraud!
What is seafood fraud?
"Seafood fraud" is a term that umbrellas several different acts (such as mislabeling and short-weighing with preservatives) that are absurdly profitable and poorly regulated.
To what extent?
As an example, in 2010 the former CEO of Sterling Seafood Corporation confessed that he purposely imported cheap Vietnamese catfish labeled as pricey "grouper" to avoid $60 million US in anti-dumping tariffs. The CEO orchestrated this mislabeling scheme for at least two years until the government got word. Mislabeling is not the only type of seafood fraud and large operations are not the only players netting huge profits from these acts.
How common is seafood fraud?
More than 1 out of 3 fish.
Oceana is a leader in ocean conservation and progressive environmental policy. In 2013 they conducted the largest seafood DNA sampling effort on fish being sold in restaurants and grocery store to identify how common seafood fraud is throughout the U.S. This investigation found that 1 out of 3 fish are mislabeled, most notably red snapper and tuna. Additionally, in October of 2015, Oceana released another seafood fraud report on America's favorite fish family, the salmons. They found that 43 percent of salmon samples were mislabeled when wild salmon was not in season.
View Oceana Reports
2013 Oceana National Seafood Fraud Report
2015 Oceana Salmon Testing Report
In addition, there are boatloads of unreported, unregulated, and illegal fish being caught and sold under legal fish names. The federal government is taking a step in the right direction with the formation of the National Ocean Council Committee (NOC) on Illegal Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing and Seafood Fraud. While they talk, take the next few scrolls down to familiarize yourself with some of these tasteless acts.
Common Practices Within Seafood Fraud
SHORT-WEIGHTING WITH SODIUM TRIPOLYPHOSPHATE (STPP)
STPP is a colorless, tasteless and odorless salt that is used to preserve food, including seafood, and is also found in paints and cleaning products. As a food preservative, STPP encourages cells to soak up water. This water retention makes seafood look plump, bright white, and "fresh".
Seafood that is not treated with STPP is called "Dry" while seafood that is treated with STPP may be called "Wet" (See Dry vs. Wet Scallops). Not only do consumers end up paying more money for "Wet" seafood because of the added water weight, but the seafood decreases in size and changes in texture when the water is cooked out. Excessive "Wet" treatment destroys the quality of the protein during the cooking process-it creates a "soapy" flavor and crumbly texture. Not what the customer paid for.
How it happens: Once caught and cut, the seafood destined to be "Wet" will be stored in the STPP soaking solution. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nation (FAO), 11 pounds of both STPP and Sodium Phosphate are mixed with 24 gallons of water to create a soaking solution.
OVER GLAZING (ICE COATING)
When a fillet of fish is frozen, it will receive additional layers of frozen water that protects the fillet. This ice covering is called the "ice coating" or glaze. The consumer pays for the coating's weight when buying frozen fish. It is expensive water to pay for, especially if the fish is over glazed and considered a high-value fish.
BAIT AND SWITCH
The "bait and switch" is when the consumer/buyer is paying for one kind of fish but is purposely receiving a completely different kind of fish.
While the bait and switch most notably happens at restaurants, it can happen anywhere within the supply chain with any kind of fish. For instance, "Bay Scallops" may actually be small round hole punches of skate wing. Wild salmon commonly ends up being farmed salmon and pricey and over-consumed "Atlantic cod" very well could be cheaper "Pacific cod" from across the country. There are even accounts of Mako shark being sold as swordfish.
Buying from CSFs or buying fish according to seasonality are great ways to prevent the bait and switch and mislabeling
mislabeling is too common
Mislabeling can be an act of greed or happen by accident. When a fish loses its identity at the beginning of the chain of custody buyers near the end of the chain of custody are oblivious to the switch. How about the restaurant that bought Sterling Seafood's "grouper" in the late 2000's from a middleman? If the fish remained labeled as "grouper" all the buyers were scammed for years as were all the customers who paid good money for cheap fish.
When 1 out of 3 fish are mislabeled, consumers and buyers should be adamant about traceability and transparency.
Even some legally acceptable labeling is misleading!
There are multiple FDA approved "Acceptable Market Names" for a single fish. Acadian Redfish (Sebastes fasciatus ) is a tasty local deep water Atlantic species that is commonly marketed as "Redfish", "Ocean Perch" and "Rockfish"; however, "Rockfish" is also an "Acceptable Market Name" for dozens of pacific fishes, too. How is a customer suppose to know which fish they are ordering and receiving?
This legal ambiguity and mislabeling allows endangered and illegal species (even those toxic to our health) to be caught and sold under an "Acceptable Market Name". Take grouper for example in the following video ...
PROTECT YOUR HEALTH AND WALLET FROM SEAFOOD FRAUD
FIND AND SUPPORT TRACEABILITY
Knowing the name of your fish and who has been involved in the process from sea to plate is called traceability. Traceability can be provided by an organization that has a short chain of custody, like a Community Supported Fishery (CSF), or can be more digital like a QR code.
Traceability ensures customers are getting the fish they are paying for. In Massachusetts, Red's Best of Boston is a proud and successful business that provides local fish and traceability technology to every buyer for every fish. We hope more businesses follow their example.
BUY FRESH, NOT FROZEN
Buying thawed fish eliminates the risk of paying for overglazing. Plus, how long has that bag of fish fillets been sitting in the store's freezer?
BE FRENCH- BUY WHOLE AND HEAD ON
Fish heads are important when buying fish- not only does a whole fish prevent mislabeling, a clear eye will tell you that the fish is still good quality! Plus, fish heads make for a great seafood stock. Just let the Smith College graduate Julia Child show you how easy cooking whole fish can be!
IN SEASON IN SEASON IN SEASON
Have we mentioned the perks of buying in season? A reduction in seafood fraud is one of them!
Not only is fish priced lower when it is abundant during its peak season, but Oceana's Salmon DNA study showed that fish is mislabeled more when it is not in season (ex. salmon labeled as "Wild" was in fact cheap imported farm raised salmon). Touch base with our website every few months to identify which local species are in season, view DMF's Seasonal Availability Chart, or ask your fish monger-it's what they're there for!
WHAT IS THE FUTURE OF SEAFOOD FRAUD?
That depends on you, the consumer.
Your money talks in the seafood industry. Seafood fraud will continue if consumers continue to settle and pay for imported cheap (commonly illegal) fish that is not traceable.
Seafood fraud is a big issue that will not be solved quickly or easily; however, being aware and concerned are the first steps toward a solution.
Learn. Share. Eat.