Seafood fraud is a worldwide conservation and culinary problem. Mislabeling fish directly impacts consumers as well as marine ecosystems. Seafood is the most traded global food commodity, so this issue touches all corners of the Earth.
But what exactly is seafood fraud? Fraud occurs along the complex supply chain from net to table. It can result from of a lack of information or blatant deception. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration acknowledges three types of seafood fraud: substitution, short-weighting, and mislabeling.
Substitution takes advantage of the fact that once a fish is filleted and skinned, the specific species is difficult or impossible to determine without DNA analysis. This is particularly common in the practice of passing off lower-value species for more expensive ones, like substituting catfish for grouper.
Short-weighting is a lesser known but common practice. This is when processors misrepresent the weight of a seafood product by overglazing, soaking, or breading the product. While adding a layer of ice or preservative to keep a product fresh is a normal and legal practice, using excess ice (overglazing) or additives (soaking) to intentionally increase the weight of the product makes the act fraudulent.
Mislabeling occurs in a few different ways. A fish may be intentionally sold under the guise of another species’ name. Sometimes they are sold with a false claim to have been harvested from a different geographical location or labeled as wild-caught when the fish was actually farm-raised. An example of this would be paying for wild caught Chinook salmon, but the product received is actually farmed Atlantic salmon. Purveyors will conceal illegally caught species, evade conservation laws, and cater to market demands—effectively selling a catch for more money than it’s worth.
Too Many Fish in the Sea The FDA fish list includes about 2,000 entries for fishes that are acceptable to sell at market, as well as the numerous names they can legally be sold under. For example, about 100 different species of fish qualify as “snapper.” While Lutjanus campechanus is the only species considered true “red snapper” that can legally be sold as such, the FDA notes that 24 other species are called red snapper in vernacular terminology. Although these species may be referred to as red snapper in conversational speech, they are not FDA-recognized acceptable market names.
The LA Times reported that “red snapper is plentiful year-round, relatively inexpensive, and versatile enough to prepare in any number of dishes and local consumers are only a seafood outlet away from same-day locally caught fish. The only problem is—they aren’t eating red snapper.”
What they’re eating—at least near Los Angeles and the Pacific Ocean—is one of many species of rockfish such as yelloweye, copper, China, or bocaccio. A vernacular term for rockfish, according to the FDA fish list, is “Pacific red snapper.” Although true red snapper aren’t native or present on the West Coast, the FDA does accept rockfish to be sold on the market as “snapper.”
According to Forbes, a 2015 report by the Congressional Research Service noted that 77% of the “red snapper” sold in retail and restaurants was not actually real red snapper. And in a 2013 study by non-profit environmental group Oceana, researchers sampled 120 pieces of fish labeled as red snapper from grocery stores, restaurants, and sushi establishments. According to DNA analysis, only seven were actually red snapper—95% were something else.
Why not just put rockfish on more menus? The fish has lean, medium-firm meat with a mild, sweet flavor. Whereas red snapper is one of the most expensive fishes on the market, rockfish is very affordable. It’s a versatile flesh that deserves individual respect, not just existence as counterfeit red snapper.
This is where species-specific seafood trade becomes relevant. Approximately 100 species of rockfish live around North America. So, if yellowtail rockfish is on a menu or in a market, should it be labeled by its common name? Or could it be specifically marked with its scientific name, Sebastes flavidus? Or would the simple “rockfish” suffice?
The Power of a Name The same 2013 study by Oceana considered Chilean sea bass mislabeled because it's not true sea bass. DNA revealed it was actually either Patagonian or Antarctic toothfish. But this isn’t technically a mislabel—it’s a rebrand.
Lee Lantz, a fish wholesaler out of Los Angles, is credited with changing the name in 1977 as a marketing move. When Lantz first saw toothfish, of the notothen or cod icefishes family, he was confronted by the unappetizing name and a face only a mother could love. But he quickly realized the delicious, light, flaky meat and largely untouched populations around the South Pole could sustain industrial market demands. The rebrand worked—almost too well.
Toothfish populations plummeted between 1994 and 2004 from illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing operations fetching a high price for the “white gold.” IUU fishing has dropped 95% since its peak and toothfish populations are now stable.
True sea bass belong to the family Serranidae and toothfish belong in the family Nototheniidae, so the two species aren’t closely related. However, “sea bass” sounds more familiar to most consumers than “toothfish” so people are more likely to order it. Nothing about eating something “toothy” is very appetizing to the average consumer. Although “Chilean sea bass” is not actually a subspecies of sea bass, it provides a mechanism to sell toothfish. So, is it deceptive to pass off toothfish as “sea bass?” Perhaps.
But true deception is selling hog bung disguised as calamari.
That’s right. Those crispy, slightly chewy rings dipped in lemon aioli could actually be pig butthole, not squid.
An extremely entertaining interview on This American Life reveals that some pork processing plants box up pig colon and label it as “imitation calamari.” The interviewers actually do a side-by-side taste test of squid versus bung, and the participants couldn’t even identify the true calamari.
Ron Meek, a meat-processing plant manager, isn’t surprised. He pointed out how big slaughterhouses find a purpose for every part of the pig.
“They save the lungs. They save the pancreas. They save the spleens. They save the hearts,” Meek said. “The only thing left by the time it's all said and done is a skull and jaw bones.”
While here at MeatEater we fully commend making use out of every part of the animal, selling a pork product as seafood crosses a few lines. Some folks don’t eat pork for religious reasons. Some have dietary restrictions or simply don’t want to eat pork intestine when they order squid.
So, if it tastes good, why not market fried pig bung?
“Just because the word ‘bung,’ probably,” Meek said. “People don't just want to jump up and say, ‘Man, I'm gonna eat me some bung tonight.’ You know? I mean, that's just the way it is.”
Perhaps pig bung is in need of a rebrand. Fried chitlins? Pigamari?
Rebrands work. After all, the toothfish isn’t alone in undergoing a major name change. In 1970, the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service rebranded the delicious-sounding slimehead to “orange roughy.”
Have you ever seen “whore’s eggs” on a menu? Probably not, but sea urchin, also known as uni, has a massive market. They earned the former name from Mainer commercial fishermen annoyed with their prickliness.
What about “megrim?” The rebranded Cornish sole provides a more consumer-friendly name because more people are likely to know what flounder-like sole fish look and taste like.
Rebranding seafood makes certain species of fish more appealing to the masses, often in order to utilize untapped fisheries. In fact, rebranding can be a sustainable move, taking pressure off overfished populations and shifting consumer focus to more stable or underappreciated fisheries.
"Asian carp" is a catch-all term name for several problematic invasive species now found throughout the Mississippi Basin including bighead, black, grass, and silver carp. Originally imported for cleaning out catfish aquaculture ponds, these algae eaters escaped and spread rapidly throughout the Midwest. According to the USDA, the fish are “fast-growing and prolific feeders that out-compete native fish and leave a trail of environmental destruction in their wake.” You might have seen videos of hundreds of carp leaping in the air when a motorboat passes through. That has made boating very dangerous in some places.
Maybe people don’t want to eat Asian carp because they associate them with common carp. Social stigmas about eating and targeting carp run deep. But Asian carp are plankton feeders with meat that has a light, clean taste, commonly compared to cod or tilapia. (And, for the record, common carp taste good too.) The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has been serving some 10,000 pounds of Asian carp a year to students in its dining halls for the last several years.
Currently, the best plan managers have for dealing with this invader is rebranding it to sound more appetizing. USA Today says that the official new name for Asian carp will be revealed at the 2021 Boston Seafood Show. Although eating Asian carp is not likely to eradicate the invasive species entirely, this rebrand is offering one constructive, sustainable, and profitable solution to an extremely complex problem.
More Seafood Scandals “White tuna” is a common occurrence on menus of cheap sushi establishments, but it’s not actually albacore—it’s escolar. This deep-sea fish (which is not a real tuna) also known as “butterfish,” “oilfish,” “waloo/walu,” “snake mackerel,” and jokingly, “ex-lax fish.”
Escolar is tasty, sustainable, low in mercury, and cheap. It makes sense to sell this fish, but why hide under the façade “white tuna?”
Escolar can’t metabolize wax esters found in their diet, which gives the fish its notably buttery texture. However, this factor will also cause explosive, oily, orange diarrhea when consumed in quantities larger than 6 ounces.
This is an instance of dangerous and fraudulent substitution. Selling escolar under the name white tuna has not been approved by the FDA. Albacore is the only species of tuna considered to be "white." And if it’s on a sushi menu, it will be labeled as albacore, not white tuna.
Perhaps instead of using the “white tuna” lie, sushi establishments could be honest with consumers and sell escolar in moderation and with a warning—similar to the one you’re given when consuming raw fish. With proper knowledge, gastrointestinal suffering could be avoided, and this tasty fish could still be sold and consumed. Some restaurants are already labeling as escolar but it’s not widespread.
Krab, imitation crab, or crab stick is another commonality of cheap sushi joints. Have you ever wondered what krab really is? Or maybe you would rather not see how the sausage is made.
The main ingredient of krab is surimi, a fish paste made predominantly from pollock. It’s combined with fillers like starch, sugar, egg whites, and crab flavoring, then coated in red dye for an authentic crab experience. Apparently people don’t mind buying imitation crab though, because it racks in over $250 million in annual sales in the U.S. alone.
Trust Me, I’m a Local The Associated Press released an article in 2018 investigating the fraudulent activity of mislabeling fish as “local.” The new source noted a company called Sea to Table that markets itself as selling sustainable, U.S. wild-caught seafood. Their mission statement reads: “U.S. fisheries are closely monitored and managed by a strict science-based system, we can rest easy knowing that their fish is responsibly caught from healthy oceans. Our goal is to make this delicious seafood available to everyone.”
However, DNA testing suggested some of the company’s yellowfin tuna likely came from the other side of the world. The company was also offering species that were illegal to catch, out of season, or farmed. Reporters discovered that Sea to Table’s supply chain involved foreign fishermen working for as little as $1.50 for a 22-hour shift without proper food and water available.
“We were treated like slaves,” said Sulistyo, an Indonesian fisherman forced to work on a foreign trawler that delivered fish to a Sea to Table supplier. He asked that Associated Press only use one name in fear of retaliation. “They treat us like robots without any conscience.”
After returning to Indonesia and being classified as a victim of trafficking, Sulistyo discovered that 30 pounds of tuna could be sold for more than $600—more than his annual income. “I want to say to the Americans who eat that fish, please appreciate what we did to catch this fish with our sweat, with our lives,” Sulistyo said. “Please remember that.”
Sea to Table claimed to use “partner docks” and provide seafood that was “just landed.” The reality is that they rely heavily on standard fish markets—which rely heavily on imports. Essentially, this is a business built to exploit the desire of consumers to buy from sustainable, local fisheries.
The Tech Solution Species- and location-specific labeling in the seafood trade is ideal, but accurately identifying a white, skinless fillet of fish based off the visual appearance of the product is usually impossible. However, in March 2021, researchers from the University of Texas released a publication in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry that could offer a simple and affordable solution to identify ambiguous oceanic stocks.
The study uses a MasSpec pen—a handheld device being developed to diagnose tumors—to identify animal tissue through contact. The study describes the MasSpec as an “easy-to-use handheld device connected to a mass spectrometer that employs a solvent droplet for gentle chemical analysis of samples.”
According to Scientific American, the pen works 720 times faster than the leading meat evaluation technique, polymerase chain reaction testing. The pen uses a chemical profile to associate the sample taken with a previously catalogued fish species. In the study, halibut, cod, and sockeye salmon were correctly identified. The device is roughly the size of an ink pen and “seems to be an affordable and quick way for businesses to make some quick, science-based verifications of what exactly the species is,” said Natalie Hunter, head of supply chain development at the Marine Stewardship Council.
Additionally, the test does not harm the product, so it is safe to consume fish after sampling. In future advancements, researchers hope to be able to identify where a certain fish came from and whether it was wild caught or farm raised. This technology will have to undergo further testing and inspection before it is commercially available.
Angler Insight Fishermen are required to be knowledgeable of what species they are catching and selling to abide local laws. This allows for effective, science-based management of fisheries and involvement of the public in these conservation efforts. Perhaps a similar sense of awareness and responsibility should be instilled on all purveyors and consumers of seafood.
Seafood is a global trade. Growing concerns about climate change and ocean health act as market drivers because people want to buy responsibly. Accountability is difficult in this massive and complicated market. But if you see the fish come off the boat (or the line) with your own eyes, there isn’t much room left for guessing.
If you are truly concerned about fish fraud, buy the whole fish from a reputable source. Better yet, if you catch your own, you know damn well what you’ll be eating. So, go wet a line and fillet the fraud away.