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A Blue View: Seafood Fraud

by John Racanelli, Chief Executive Officer

Published October 30, 2013

A Blue View is a weekly perspective on the life aquatic, hosted by National Aquarium CEO John Racanelli.

From the smallest plants and animals invisible to the human eye to entire ecosystems, every living thing depends on and is intricately linked by water.

Tune in to 88.1 WYPR every Tuesday at 5:45 p.m. as John brings to the surface important issues and fascinating discoveries making waves in the world today.

October 30, 2013: Seafood Fraud

Click here to listen to John and Oceana's Beth Lowell discuss the importance of traceability.

Throughout October, we’ve talked about National Seafood Month and how our seafood choices and personal actions are related to healthy ocean ecosystems, healthy economies and healthy families.

Americans love to eat seafood. In fact, the United States is the second largest consumer of seafood in the world, only behind China. Unfortunately, although seafood can be healthy and delicious choice, the current lack of traceability in the U.S. seafood supply chain may be putting the oceans and seafood consumers at risk.

Americans are often left in the dark about where, when and how their seafood was caught. The only information that seafood consumers have to rely on is the label, which is often vague, misleading or even flat out false. From 2010-2012, Oceana conducted one of the largest seafood fraud studies in the world to date, collecting more than 1,200 seafood samples from 21 states. DNA testing revealed that one-third (33 percent) of the samples were mislabeled, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines.

Seafood fraud can impact everyone along the supply chain, whether it is the buyer, the seller, or the ocean itself. Consumers who avoid certain fish due to health concerns may be unwittingly ingesting a high mercury fish, as Oceana found multiple instances of in our testing. Many times, they also may be paying top prices but getting lower cost fish.

In July, Oceana released a report that evaluated the economic cost of seafood fraud. An eight-ounce fillet of tilapia, which would usually sell for about $15, could sell for as much as $22 if it was mislabeled as red snapper or $27 if it was mislabeled as grouper. In addition, a species of fish like salmon often sells for a higher price if it is labeled as wild-caught, versus farm-raised.

Seafood fraud also hurts our oceans. Illegal fishermen can launder their product into the U.S. market, not having to account for the capture method they used, or if their catch is an overfished species that warrants protection. Not only does this undermine conservation efforts, it puts honest fishermen at a competitive disadvantage.

Although some species of fish may have a distinctive look while swimming around in the ocean, they may look, smell and taste similar to another fish once they have been filleted and covered in sauce. In June, Oceana teamed up with the National Aquarium for a recent Fresh Thoughts dinner, focusing on seafood fraud. By offering dinner attendees commonly swapped fish side-by-side, Oceana demonstrated just how difficult it was for anyone, even experts, to tell between many species of fish.

seafood fraud quiz fresh thoughts

Without requiring that fish are tracked from the ocean to our plate, it can be impossible to tell if our seafood is honestly labeled. Although U.S. fishermen are required to record where, when and how their fish was caught, much of that documentation does not always stay with the fish to the end consumer.

That is why Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK) and Rep. Lois Capps (D-CA) are leading the charge to fight seafood fraud. The Safety and Fraud Enforcement for Seafood (SAFE Seafood) Act was introduced in March and would require traceability for all seafood sold in the U.S, allow the U.S. to block imports of seafood suspected to be mislabeled or illegal, and improve the information consumers receive about their seafood. The bill has since gained support from chefs, restaurant owners, consumers, fishermen and environmental groups.

Fighting seafood fraud is a win for consumers, fishermen, honest seafood businesses, our oceans and our health!

Beth Lowell is a campaign director at Oceana, the largest international advocacy group working solely to protect the world’s oceans.

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