Bait to Plate: Avoid the Fishy Business of Seafood Fraud

By Beth Lowell Campaign Director at Oceana, the largest international advocacy group working solely to protect the world’s oceans Learn more about Oceana’s Campaign to Stop Seafood Fraud.

Posted on | By Beth Lowell

If you order filet mignon at your favorite steakhouse, you would be upset if you were served horsemeat instead. Similarly, a seafood lover who orders red snapper would expect to receive the fish she pays for. Unfortunately, recent testing by Oceana revealed that seafood purchased from grocery stores, restaurants and sushi bars may be a completely different fish from the one on the label, and this type of seafood fraud is more common than you may think.

Seafood fraud comes in many forms, from falsifying documents, to labeling a fish a different species than what is sold, to adding too much ice to packaging, and it is a widespread problem in the US. In fact, recent studies have found that seafood may be mislabeled as often as 25 to 70% of the time for commonly swapped species like Atlantic cod, red snapper and wild salmon. For the past two years, Oceana’s Stop Seafood Fraud campaign has focused on species substitution, which happens when one fish is swapped for another that is often cheaper, less desirable or more readily available. Not only does this type of fraud rip off consumers, it can have potentially dire consequences for public health and the oceans.

As part of our campaign, Oceana conducted DNA testing of seafood meals in multiple cities across the country to get to the bottom of how much bait and switch was occurring. What did we find? Everywhere we tested, we found seafood fraud: 39% of seafood tested in New York, 55% in Los Angeles, 31% in Miami, and 48% in Boston (including testing by The Boston Globe) were mislabeled as entirely different types of fish than listed on the label.  

This bait and switch cheats consumers and can also be harmful to your health. In multiple cities, fish that sensitive groups like pregnant women and children should avoid due to their high levels of mercury were disguised as safer choices. Tilefish was labeled as red snapper and halibut in NYC and king mackerel was masquerading as grouper, a popular and local choice in South Florida. Another commonly swapped fish was escolar for “white tuna,” primarily in sushi venues. Escolar is a type of snake mackerel, not even a tuna at all, whose oily flesh can cause unpleasant digestive upset to some people who eat more than a few ounces.

How does this bait and switch happen? Seafood can follow a complex path from the fishing boat to your dinner plate, with your fish passing through many different hands. Without tracking your fish from bait to plate, it is easier to swap out one fish for another. The more steps and the more processed your seafood dinner, the more chances for fraudulent activity.

Americans should be able to know when a fish was caught, where it was caught, how it was caught or if it is previously frozen, but much of that information never makes it to the label. So what is a consumer to do to reduce the risk of being duped?

  1. Ask questions. If your retailer or restaurant is not able to answer questions about the seafood they are selling, you may want to make a different choice.
  2. If the price is too good to be true, it probably is. If a price seems unreasonably low, it may be a sign it’s a mislabeled fish.
  3. Popular fish are commonly swapped. The four fish you need to be extra careful about buying due to frequent mislabeling are some of the most popular species: tuna, snapper, salmon and grouper. Consumers should make sure to ask extra questions when buying these fish.
  4. Buy traceable seafood. Some retailers and restaurants are making commitments to only sell traceable seafood. By supporting traceable seafood, consumers can have more confidence in the seafood they eat. 
  5. Buy the whole fish whenever possible. You can ask for it to be cut into fillets at the store. The more processed your fish and the more hands it passes through, the more opportunities for a bait and switch.
  6. Be extra careful when ordering fish at sushi bars. In every city we tested, sushi venues had the highest rates of seafood fraud, with 100% of the sushi bars visited in New York City selling at least one piece of mislabeled fish. And remember, most everything labeled as “white tuna,” is more than likely escolar, as only albacore tuna is allowed to be called “white tuna” and only when it is sold in a can.
  7. Buy your fish from larger chain supermarkets instead of smaller grocery stores when possible, as your odds of getting a mislabeled fish are much lower. Oceana’s New York City testing revealed 12% of seafood purchased was mislabeled in larger supermarkets versus a whopping 40% for smaller markets.

Although these tips can help seafood consumers in their daily lives, the real solution to seafood fraud is to require traceability for all seafood sold in the U.S. Tracking a fish from the boat to your dinner plate would help ensure that all seafood sold in America is safe, legal and honestly labeled. 

How does traceability work? U.S. fishermen already provide much of the information like where, when and how a fish was caught when they land their fish at the dock. But much of this information stops at this step, and it is not passed along the seafood supply chain. Without this information that can verify a fish’s identity, ensure it is legal and provide more information to consumers, it is easier for someone looking to make a profit to swap a fish.

A number of voluntary traceability programs are already in effect around the country. These programs track fish from the boat to the final point of sale. Some retailers like Target have recently made commitments to sell only traceable seafood, and some restaurants are also providing more information about the seafood they are selling, including selling traceable seafood. While these actions are great steps forward, until there is a nationwide system to pass this information through the supply chain that is transparent and verifiable, opportunities for fraud remain.

With more than 1,700 different species of seafood sold in the US, it’s unreasonable to expect consumers to be able to accurately and independently verify the fish they buy. The seafood supply chain needs an upgrade. All seafood sold in the US should be safe, legal and honestly labeled. Without tracking fish from boat to plate, dishonest fraudsters will continue to take advantage of consumers while putting our health and the oceans at risk.

Article written by Beth Lowell
Campaign Director at Oceana, the largest international advocacy group working solely to protect the world’s oceans