The delicious fish dish you order at a restaurant or beautiful filet you take home from the grocery store may not be what you think it is. Many seafood retailers market fish deceptively. They pass off lesser-known species of fish as different, more popular (and sometimes more expensive) species, or they market farmed fish as wild-caught.
A report by conservation group Oceana found that on average, retailers market 28 percent of fish as a different species, and a high proportion of substitute species potentially pose health risks.
According to the Oceana report, Asian catfish, also known as pangasius, was the most heavily substituted fish. The report found that vendors substituted this fish for perch, grouper, sole, plaice, halibut, catfish, cod, flounder, basa, rock cod, hake, pollock, snakehead, panga, rawas, red snapper, gurnard, and anglerfish.
Slippery Marketing Practices Bait Consumers
Seafood is different than other commonly eaten meats, such as chicken, pork, or beef. There are many more species of fish than there are choices of other meats. Additionally, most consumer interaction with fish comes from eating it already prepared at restaurants, buying fresh or frozen filets, or heating prepared fish products like frozen, breaded fish sticks.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries of the United States report for 2015, Americans consumed 15.5 pounds per capita of seafood in 2015. This low American seafood intake is in contrast to the 104.8 pounds per capita of red meat and 106 pounds per capita of all poultry products consumed in 2015, according to the National Chicken Council.
There is a lack of data on how many consumers eat whole fish, but based on the overall small consumption figures of fish, it may be reasonable to assume that very few people are familiar with what fish species look like whole – and fewer still would be able to identify a species based on sight alone.
What all of this means is that unscrupulous vendors or restaurant managers wishing to pass off cheap fish as expensive fish can easily manipulate consumers. The most popular, best-known seafood species are also the most expensive – salmon, lobster, swordfish, and tuna (not the canned variety) can net $20 per pound – especially wild- caught varieties or those sold far from the coast. This situation presents a profit incentive for those suppliers wishing to deceive.
There are also health consequences for substituted seafood. Consumers concerned about mercury intake may wish to avoid certain species of fish. According to Oceana, some of the conditions that can result from mislabeled seafood include poisoning by histamine, scombrotoxin, ciguatera, or tetrodoxin. Histamine or scombrotoxin can lead to hives, low blood pressure, nausea, or trouble breathing, among other symptoms, ciguatera, can cause neurological damage, and tetrodoxin, the poison found in the “puffer fish” or fugu, can cause paralysis or death.
Gempylotoxin is another common adverse health outcome from certain fish. Escolar and oilfish can contain this toxin, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advises against the consumption or sale of this fish because it can cause significant gastric distress. Oceana reports that there have been more than 50 cases of escolar sold as “white tuna” in the U.S.
There are sustainability issues with some fish that consumers may wish to avoid, as well, including certain at-risk species of wild-caught fish that are overfished or farmed fish raised in adverse, untenable, or unclean conditions. Regarding the latter, some aquaculture farms use more fish feed (in terms of inputs, such as smaller fish or fish oil extracted from smaller whole fish) than they produce in final fish product. This is the exception, rather than the rule, but is difficult to determine from a label or menu.
Deceptive Marketing: Hook, Line, and Sinker
One reason for all this is the fact that 91 percent of the seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported, according to the NOAA.
Fish caught or farmed in other countries are not subject to the same regulations as seafood that comes from U.S. fisheries, so it may not be as safe.
In a statement to CNN, Dan Solis, the FDA’s Director of Import Operations in Los Angeles, said the following about imported food products: “The way it
is manufactured, they don’t have the same laws and regulatory systems that we do in the U.S. Inherently, yeah, imported food manufactured overseas is probably riskier.”
According to the office of Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS), samples of pangasius and tilapia imported from Vietnam and China have been found to contain elements of formaldehyde. In addition, Sen. Cochran’s office stated that the FDA inspects only two percent of imported seafood – and tests even less than that for contaminants in a laboratory.
As mentioned previously, there is a monetary incentive to market mislabeled seafood. Vendors and restaurants doing this know they will profit, and that there is a low possibility that the authorities will catch or prosecute them.
Another reason stems from consumers themselves. Many people have a preference for the best-known species of fish and aren’t interested in lesser-known or visually unappealing fish, or species with unusual names. Many people’s distaste for whole fish and predilection for prepared products where the specific fish is easily disguised (such as frozen fish sticks or fish sandwiches) further compounds this situation.
Fishing for a Solution
Consumer education is one of the best ways to address this problem. Consumers should only buy seafood from sources they trust and should educate themselves on the visual differences between different species of fish. An app called “FishVerify” can help consumers with this; users can snap a photo of the fish in question and the app will inform them of the species. Recreational anglers were the intended audience of this app, but consumers can use it at the fish market as well. A number of state government agencies also maintain fish identification guides that are useful for determining fish species based on color, gill and fin location, and other attributes. In addition to utilizing fish identification apps and guides, consumers should be aware what species of fish are most likely to be mislabeled or marketed misleadingly.
Another solution is to emphasize the lesser known species of seafood over the more popular fish. This has the additional benefit of lower costs for consumers, as less popular or less glamorous fish, such as porgies or perch, are usually cheaper than the most in-demand fish. Some restaurants are leading the way with this approach. For example, some Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. area restaurants and fishmongers sell snakehead, an invasive species found in the Potomac River and its tributaries. Other regions sell lionfish, an invasive species o en found along the East Coast and in the Gulf of Mexico. These fish are often cheaper, tasty, and serve the added bene t of helping rid an invasive species from local waterways.
Lastly, prioritizing American-caught seafood can help partially address the issue. Because domestic-caught or farmed fish are subject to more regulations than imported seafood, it is easier to know what you’re getting. This has the added benefit of more sustainable seafood for consumers and more revenue for American fisheries.