Seafood fraud: What you see may not be what you get

In All, Food Products, General, Guest Article by Sarah Geren


Seafood fraud is the intentional mislabeling of seafood and is more common than you might think. People commit seafood fraud to increase profits by marking a lower value or less desirable seafood as something that could bring in more money. But the practice has negative consequences for the rest of the food system, concealing a host of health, environmental, and social risks.

Recently, the DC-based international ocean advocacy group Oceana released a report highlighting the global extent of seafood fraud and its negative impacts. Across more than 200 academic articles, news reports, and legal cases, about a fifth of the seafood tested was mislabeled.

Mislabeling is not always intentional. Some fish swim in the same areas, or look similar to other fish, which can lead to unintentional mislabeling. But there are many serious negative impacts to mislabeling of any kind, and strong traceability and labeling rules would not only reduce intentional fraud, but can entice suppliers to be more careful to avoid unintentional mislabeling as well.

The seafood supply chain is long, messy, and poorly regulated. Without traceability measures, it is nearly impossible to tell where along this complex supply chain fraud occurs.

The US is set to take action on this issue. President Obama assembled a task force in 2014 to address the issue of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. The task force led to the National Ocean Council (NOC) Committee on IUU Fishing and Seafood Fraud developing traceability legislation, which may be released in its final form before the year ends. While the legislation is viewed as a good start, consumer and environmental groups, including Oceana, are calling for more comprehensive traceability measures.

Puffer fish

Certain fish species can cause unintended health risks when mislabeled as other fish.

Health Risks

Despite being a healthy form of protein, seafood can have some serious health concerns. Certain species of seafood are associated with unique health risks, which all consumers are susceptible to, that need to be tested for or controlled. Some examples of possible health effects include gastric, neurologic, and allergic-like symptoms, as well as mercury poisoning. Over half of the mislabeled samples in the Oceana report were associated with one of these health risks: risks that may have gone unchecked by being mislabeled.

Specific issues include:

Tetradotoxin in pufferfish is a well-known species-specific risk that can cause paralysis.

Ciguatera in reef fish can cause a range of symptoms from nausea and vomiting to neurologic symptoms.

Scombroids in some tuna-related fish cause allergic reaction-like symptoms if the fish in improperly handled.

A fish called escolar causes gempylotoxin poisoning when eaten in large enough portions. This type of toxin is responsible for a host of unpleasant symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, and oily bowel discharge. Oceana reported over 50 instances of escolar misleadingly labeled as white tuna in the US.

High-mercury seafood mislabeled as low-mercury seafood. For instance, a 2013 Oceana study found fish on the FDA’s list of high mercury seafood (for children and pregnant or nursing women) to avoid labeled as other types of fish.

yellow gin tuna fast moving in the ocean

Many consumers desire to make informed-purchasing decisions based on factors such as sustainability.

Environmental, Social, and Economic Risks

Many consumers are concerned about not only the health aspects of their dietary choices, but also other ethical concerns such as environmental impact, worker safety and welfare, and supporting responsible businesses. Consumer’s attempts to choose products that are in line with their values is undermined by seafood fraud.

Many consumers want to purchase seafood that is more abundant in supply, rather than contributing to dwindling seafood stocks. Overfishing and other irresponsible fishing practices have resulted in depletion of seafood stocks, destruction of marine habitats, and bycatch of non-target species, which are sometimes threatened or endangered species.

Consumers may also want to avoid certain farmed seafood, as some aquaculture practices are environmentally destructive. Mislabeling of seafood makes it hard to know if seafood purchases are actually sustainable, even when using valuable tools for consumers like the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Guide. Over 37 million people rely on wild fisheries for income to some degree, so it is important that they are sustainably managed. Oceana found 16% of samples substituted for a different type of fish were species considered to be threatened or close to being threatened with extinction by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List.

Seafood fraud also hurts the wallets of consumers. In the past, Oceana has found wild Pacific salmon replaced by cheaper farmed Atlantic salmon, imported crabs labeled as the regional specialty Chesapeake Blue Crab, and farmed shrimp sold as wild or gulf shrimp. In all of these substitutions, customers were likely paying for more than what they were actually getting. The most recent report was no different. Pangasius, a cheap, farmed catfish from Asia (also commonly known as swai, sutchi, basa or tra) was found mislabeled 141 times, masquerading as 18 different kinds of fish.

People within the seafood industry are harmed by seafood fraud, too. Responsible fishermen are forced to compete with fishermen who use illegal gear, are fishing out of season, or catching and trying to sell protected species. Vendors who sell true high quality fish have to compete with vendors selling cheaper mislabeled versions.

What’s Happening to Address this Issue?

The Seafood Import Monitoring Program, the program that will be put in place by the final version of the NOC Committee’s ruling, is a major step in the right direction, but there are some weaknesses in the most recent version. The most recent version only monitors seafood up until the point of import into the US and covers only 13 species. As Oceana pointed out in an earlier report, seafood fraud can and does happen within the US, such as the owner of a fishing fleet charged for a mislabeling scheme that got him $154 million in profits over 30 years, or a crabmeat supplier under federal investigation for packaging and selling cheaper imported crab as US-caught crab.

The proposed legislation also only covers a small subset of seafood to the point of import. This narrow focus means that people looking to cheat the system may be more likely to mislabel their products as any type of seafood not covered. Although the rule currently says that it will eventually cover all types of seafood, it does not define a plan for doing so.

It is easy to feel overwhelmed by fraud, but there are some things consumers can do. The biggest indicator is price. If a seafood product seems too cheap to be true, it probably is. Whole seafood, rather than filets or packaged products, is less likely to be mislabeled, since it is more easily recognizable.

Seafood fraud is a complex issue, and traceability of all species all the way to the plate or shopping cart is needed to protect consumers, honest businesses, and the environment.

Sarah interned with Oceana between February and July in 2016 and was a researcher on and contributor to the recent report.