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Overview
Sole searching
How we tested
Overfishing?

Mystery fish

The label said red snapper, the lab said baloney

Last reviewed: December 2011
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Americans spent $80.2 billion on seafood last year, $5 billion more than in 2009, but they aren't always buying what they think they are. More than one-fifth of 190 pieces of seafood we bought at retail stores and restaurants in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut were mislabeled as different species of fish, incompletely labeled, or misidentified by employees.

Whether deliberate or not, substitution hurts consumers three ways: in their wallet, when expensive seafood is switched for less desirable, cheaper fish; in their health, when they mistakenly eat species that are high in mercury or other contaminants; and in their conscience, if they find out they've mistakenly bought species whose numbers are low.

We sent our fresh and frozen fish samples to an outside lab for DNA testing. Researchers extracted genetic material from each sample and compared the genetic sequences against standardized gene fragments that identify its species in much the same way that criminal investigators use genetic fingerprinting. (See How we tested: Using DNA to solve a mystery.) Some fish were sampled more widely than others. Still, our results provide a snapshot of what a shopper might buy. Among our findings:

  • Only four of the 14 types of fish we bought—Chilean sea bass, coho salmon, and bluefin and ahi tuna—were always identified correctly.
  • Eighteen percent of our samples didn't match the names on placards, labels, or menus. Fish were incorrectly passed off as catfish, grey sole, grouper, halibut, king salmon, lemon sole, red snapper, sockeye salmon, and yellowfin tuna.
  • Four percent were incompletely labeled or misidentified by employees.
  • All 10 of the "lemon soles" and 12 of the 22 "red snappers" we bought weren't the claimed species.
  • One sample, labeled as grouper, was actually tilefish, which averages three times as much mercury as grouper. The Food and Drug Administration advises women of childbearing age and children to avoid tilefish entirely.
  • Out of curiosity, we sent the lab something labeled "colossal sea scallop" because it looked suspiciously huge. The results showed that it was a scallop, but not the labeled species.

How does that happen?

Our findings are in line with those from other recent studies showing that 20 to 25 percent of seafood around the world is mislabeled.

It's impossible to determine where species substitution and mislabeling occur—fish pass through many hands from hook to cook. After harvesters farm or catch seafood, they ice it or flash-freeze it. Sometimes they transfer their catch to larger vessels, where the fish might be mixed with other species. The fish may be processed at sea or shipped to foreign or domestic facilities where it's prepared for distribution.

Processing at sea, which includes removing heads and guts, slows spoilage but can make species more difficult to identify, as can breading or sauces that seafood-preparation facilities might add. When sending fish and shellfish to retailers, suppliers must note their country of origin and whether they were wild or farm-raised. (Prepared fish products such as fish sticks aren't subject to that rule.)

Unscrupulous people may try to falsify documentation or hide illegally caught fish with legally captured ones, according to a report released last May by Oceana, an international organization with headquarters in Washington, D.C. They could commingle species and try to sell the lot as the highest-priced species. As a result, mislabeled fish could end up in stores and restaurants. "The likelihood of being caught is so low, there's no incentive to play by the rules," says Margot Stiles, a marine scientist at Oceana.

Still, federal law requires seafood to be labeled in a way that's truthful, not misleading, and in accordance with federal regulations. It is "not acceptable" to misrepresent the identity of seafood products to consumers, says Doug Karas, a spokesman for the FDA, which oversees seafood labeling. If the FDA discovers fish fraud, it has the authority to slap companies with warning letters, seize seafood, and prevent businesses from importing fish. But FDA experts say it's primarily the responsibility of state and local agencies, not the FDA, to regulate retail food stores and restaurants.

In New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, where we bought the tested fish, state officials told us that their inspectors aren't trained to differentiate among fish species and that they focus their limited resources on food safety.

Specious species

Illustration of a fish under a magnifying glass
The FDA has spent little time looking for seafood fraud in recent years.

Here's what our DNA tests revealed and what companies told us when we asked about their seafood-selling policies. (We didn't reveal our test results.) Fish are listed in descending order of percentage mislabeled.

Red snapper

None of the 22 "red snappers" we bought at 18 markets could be positively identified as such. Eight were deemed possible DNA matches, one was described incorrectly by a store employee, and the species of another could not be conclusively determined at all. The remaining 12 turned out to be ocean perch and other kinds of snapper.

At a Whole Foods Market in White Plains, N.Y., our shoppers paid $22.99 a pound for "red snapper" that our testing showed was actually vermilion snapper, a smaller, poorer cousin.

Nevertheless, Carrie Brownstein, Whole Foods' global seafood quality standards coordinator, told us that the company has its own seafood facilities where its buyers see the species received first-hand. "Since the buyers are experts at species identification, this makes us less vulnerable than competitors to species substitution," she says, adding that the company is also working to ensure the traceability of seafood from the fishery or farm to its stores.

Sole

Just 9 of 20 samples told the truth. A "grey sole" fillet that cost $3.99 a pound was really sutchi catfish, often farmed in Asia. Of 10 misidentified lemon soles, one turned out to be Greenland turbot; three were blackback flounder, commonly (but incorrectly) referred to as lemon sole; three were identified as summer flounder; and three were not lemon sole, though the particular species could not be determined.

To avoid confusion, the FDA says that most fish nicknames are unacceptable identification, but that's merely guidance, not a regulation.

Halibut

Atlantic halibut has been overfished, according to the Department of Commerce's National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), but Pacific halibut has healthier populations. It's not easy being green, though, because labels don't have to distinguish between the two. Eight samples labeled simply as halibut were the more vulnerable Atlantic species; at four stores, employees told our shoppers that Atlantic halibut was Pacific. Of the 11 other "halibut" samples, one was summer flounder, a different kind of fish altogether.

Catfish

Three of our 21 "catfish" samples were Pangasius hypophthalmus, or sutchi catfish. None of the three bore country-of-origin labels (they were bought in small fish markets, where such labeling isn't required), but sutchi catfish are largely imported from Vietnam, where some fish farmers use drugs that are unapproved in the U.S.

The rest were Ictaluridae, the only family that can be marketed in the U.S. as plain ol' "catfish," according to a law Congress passed in 2002. The law had support from the U.S. catfish industry, which has accused Vietnam of dumping catfish on the American market. Six years later, Congress passed a law transferring catfish inspection authority from the FDA, which seldom examines imported seafood, to the Department of Agriculture, which requires foreign facilities to meet U.S. standards. Now the USDA must decide whether it will inspect only catfish in the Ictaluridae family or all domestic and imported catfish.

Salmon

Our tests found that 24 of 28 salmon were labeled correctly. But two "king salmon" and two "sockeye salmon" fillets were actually coho, generally the least expensive of the three salmon species we bought. At a Wegmans in Manalapan Township, N.J., we paid $17.99 a pound for "king salmon" that was actually coho. At the same store, we also bought correctly labeled coho salmon for $3 less per pound.

Jo Natale, director of media relations at Wegmans, told us that among other actions, the company has worked with the same vendors for many years; buys whole fresh fish and skin-on fillets, making it easier to identify the species; and has worked with organizations that help monitor the fish that Wegmans sells.

Grouper

Thirteen of 15 grouper samples were correctly labeled—but many species of grouper are overfished. As for the two mislabeled samples, one fillet was pollock, and the other was tilefish, that high-mercury species.

Cod

All 24 samples labeled as cod or scrod cod were indeed cod. But we bought two samples labeled only "scrod"—unacceptable to the FDA because that word describes a small fish, not a species. Labels should say "scrod cod," "scrod haddock," or "scrod pollock." One of our solo scrod was a cod, the other a pollock.

As with halibut labels, cod labels don't have to specify whether the species is Atlantic cod, whose populations are considered low by the NMFS, or Pacific cod, considered more abundant and sustainable. Seven of the samples we bought were Atlantic cod. They included broiled fish bought at Red Lobster restaurants in Scarsdale, N.Y., and Paramus, N.J., as well as a fillet from a Whole Foods store in Edgewater, N.J.

We asked Red Lobster and Whole Foods representatives whether they have policies against selling fish that are vulnerable or overfished. Roger Bing, vice president of seafood purchasing for Darden, the parent company of Red Lobster, says the company doesn't serve species considered at risk and cited a policy of using third-party certification of "best aquaculture practices" for a growing number of farmed species.

Whole Foods' Brownstein told us that the company has partnered with the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), which certifies sustainable, well-managed fisheries. Stores display the MSC eco-label, which is somewhat helpful. (See "Overfished or not?".) By Earth Day 2012 (April 22), she says, Whole Foods will stop selling most wild-caught seafood ranked "red" by the Blue Ocean Institute or Monterey Bay Aquarium, eco-watchdog groups. A red ranking indicates that the population has been overfished or caught in ways that might harm other marine life or habitat. Brownstein says that cod and sole have a deadline of Earth Day 2013. She says that the extra time is needed to try to find solutions, such as lower-impact fishing methods, that could improve the sustainability rankings of those fisheries. "It takes time to make changes on the water," she says.

Tuna

The two most expensive samples of fish in our test, bought for $49.99 and $64.99 per pound at a specialty store in New Jersey, were correctly labeled as bluefin tuna. But bluefin are in decline, eco-watchdog groups report, and should be avoided. One of our 10 tuna samples labeled "yellowfin" was actually bigeye. Four samples labeled "ahi tuna" were yellowfin, and four others, including three sashimis from Bonefish Grill, were bigeye. According to FDA officials, it's acceptable for various species of tuna to be labeled as ahi tuna as long as that doesn't confuse consumers.

Anyone wishing to avoid seafood high in mercury should take note: The mercury content of different tuna species that may be labeled as ahi tuna can vary. According to FDA data, bigeye averages about twice the mercury concentration of yellowfin and albacore.

Chilean sea bass

We bought 19 steaks and fillets from 19 restaurants and stores of various sizes. Among them: an A&P in Greenwich, Conn.; three Bonefish Grills in New York and New Jersey; and two Whole Foods stores in New York and New Jersey. All of our samples matched their labels. That's good news, except that some Chilean sea bass should be avoided, according to Monterey Bay Aquarium, for a variety of ecological reasons.

Marcy Connor, a spokeswoman for A&P, says that the chain makes every effort not to sell species considered unsustainable. A Bonefish Grill representative says that the company is dedicated to responsible fishing practices and the healthy stewardship of the world's marine resources. And Whole Foods' Brownstein says that the company has prohibited the sale of especially vulnerable species unless they come from fisheries that the MSC has certified as sustainable.

MSC's certification of some Chilean sea bass was recently called into question by researchers at Clemson University and elsewhere who tested 36 MSC-certified Chilean sea bass bought at retail stores and found that three were other species. Amy Jackson, deputy standards director at the MSC, says that the organization has launched an investigation.

Fixing fraud

FDA spokesman Karas says that all imports are screened before they enter the country and that a subset are inspected based on their potential risk. All investigators are trained to identify and document evidence of fraud and will detain seafood mislabeled with fictitious names such as "salmon trout" and "mackerel pike." He says the agency has purchased DNA sequencing equipment for five FDA field laboratories and anticipates using the equipment to start testing imported and domestic seafood species, usually before they reach the retail market. "With this new technology, the FDA can more easily identify instances of seafood misbranding," Karas says. "We plan on using it regularly as part of our efforts to combat mislabeling, where it affects both seafood safety and economic fraud."

That will be good news to Gavin Gibbons, a spokesman for the National Fisheries Institute, a seafood trade association. He says that the FDA has the authority to deal with species substitution and other types of fraud, "but they basically don't use it, saying essentially that that's an unfunded mandate."

According to a February 2009 Government Accountability Office report, the FDA has spent very little time looking for seafood fraud in recent years. Eighty-six percent of the seafood that Americans consumed in 2010 was imported, mainly from Canada, China, Ecuador, Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam. But FDA officials physically examined only about 2 percent of imported seafood from fiscal 2003 to 2008. Only about 0.05 percent of the examined seafood was checked for seafood fraud (mislabeled, substituted, or shortweighted items), according to the GAO report. And during that time, the FDA looked for fraud during only 0.5 percent of domestic seafood inspections. That involved mainly reviewing seafood labels (to make sure that they listed the fish by its correct name, for instance); the agency conducted very little lab analysis, GAO officials told us.

Two other federal agencies play important roles in detecting and preventing seafood-species substitution: the NMFS and the Department of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection. Each has its own labs for testing seafood, but the two haven't effectively collaborated with each other or the FDA in fighting fish fraud, the GAO reported in 2009.

Our interviews suggest that limited progress is under way: Representatives for all three agencies say they've recently shared resources on fish-fraud detection.

Last year, for example, an investigation by the three agencies and others led to the sentencing of a New Jersey man for importing Vietnamese catfish labeled as grouper. His goal: to evade more than $60 million in tariffs. (Vietnamese catfish is subject to federal tariffs; grouper is not.)

Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, supports legislation introduced this year in the U.S. Senate to help prevent seafood fraud, standardize labeling, and strengthen cooperation among federal agencies that oversee seafood safety.

Our advocates also support the USDA's new oversight of catfish safety. We've called for the USDA to define catfish broadly, so inspectors will be able to regulate all domestic and imported catfish species, and to require testing for aquaculture drugs that are illegal in the U.S. but are sometimes used overseas.

What you can do

Before deciding what fish to buy, ask the person behind the counter (or the server in a restaurant) which fish, if any, is in season, and where and how the fish was caught or farmed. Ask for the manager (or chef) if you aren't satisfied with the answers or want to learn more. Just letting the seller know that customers are interested might raise his or her consciousness about the seafood being sold.

Buy from a well-run, clean fish retailer. Make sure that employees working behind the counter are wearing clean clothes, hair coverings, and disposable gloves. In a supermarket, shop for fish last.

Whatever fish you buy, look for:

  • Fish that are refrigerated or displayed on a thick bed of fresh ice, without a tag stuck in their flesh.
  • Fish that smell fresh and mild, not fishy, sour, or ammonialike.
  • Fillets with no discoloration and no darkening or drying around the edges.
  • Firm, shiny flesh that's moist but not mushy and springs back when pressed.
  • Eyes that are clear and bulge a little; gills that are bright red and free of slime.
  • Frozen seafood with the package intact—not open, torn, or crushed at the edges—and without frost or ice crystals, which could indicate that the fish has been stored a long time or thawed and refrozen.

Did you know?

Prices range widely, even for the same type of fish, but be suspicious if fish is supercheap. For what turned out to be real grouper steaks, we paid $6.80 and $9.99 per pound. The "grouper steaks" that were really pollock and tilefish cost us just $4.99 and $5.60 per pound, respectively.