If you buy fish in New York City, particularly from a small market or restaurant, there's a pretty good chance it won't be the fish it claims to be.
An ocean conservation group announced today that three in five retail outlets it visited, including 100 percent of sushi restaurants, were selling mislabeled fish. The report is just the latest in a string of investigations revealing that seafood mislabeling is commonplace.
The researchers, from the group Oceana, collected 142 fish samples earlier this year from 81 retail outlets, including large grocery stores, corner bodegas, high-end restaurants, and sushi bars. They analyzed the samples using DNA barcoding, and found that 39 percent of the fish were labeled as other species.
Farm-raised Atlantic salmon had been substituted for wild-caught salmon, they found. Ocean perch, tilapia, and goldbanded jobfish were sold as red snapper. Fish labeled "white tuna" was escolar, which can cause acute gastrointestinal problems. And one serving of halibut was really tilefish, a species with so much mercury that the Food and Drug Administration has placed it on the do-not-eat list for pregnant women and young children.
The study didn't address who exactly is responsible for the mislabeling — whether at the supplier or the retail level. "That's for the enforcers," notes Kimberly Warner, a senior scientist at Oceana.
Last year the Boston Globe reported that 48 percent of fish in Massachusetts were mislabeled, similar to findings in Los Angeles (55 percent) and Miami (31 percent). A follow-up from the Globe published earlier this month found that 76 percent of fish in a new survey were mislabeled.
And in 2008, two New York City high school students conducted their own DNA study of four restaurants and 10 grocery stores in Manhattan and found that a quarter of the fish they sampled were mislabeled.
Warner says that traceability — a better system that would make it easier to track seafood from net to plate — would help to eliminate the fraud. "We have a very complex and murky seafood chain with no traceability."
A bill introduced to Congress in July is intended to address seafood fraud. Fish suppliers, restaurants, and stores would have to provide more information to their customers about the seafood they sell. In addition, the bill would require more coordination between the FDA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — the two government agencies responsible for food and fisheries regulation.
But Gavin Gibbons, a spokesman for the National Fisheries Institute, says that the enforcement of current law is what's really needed. "If there were more enforcement on the ground as opposed to more regulations on the books, we think we'd be seeing less fraud," Gibbons says.
Figuring out the source of a fishy fraud, whether it's a retail outlet or a supplier, Gibbons says, "is really not that hard." With only a DNA test, a menu, and an invoice, an enforcer can see that if the "invoice matches the menu and not the DNA, then you know that the supplier was the source of the fraud."
In the absence of better enforcement, Gibbons suggests that consumers ask their local shop or restaurant if their fish supplier is a member of the Better Seafood Board, an industry group that works to eliminate fish fraud.
The source of mislabeling isn't always greed — sometimes two species look too similar even for fishermen to tell them apart. But when some fish sellers are playing fair and others are getting away with substituting cheaper species for more expensive ones, "it harms a lot of people," Warner notes, "not just the consumer."