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1 in 5 fish tested was not what it was sold as at restaurants and stores, study says

Despite new federal rules targeting seafood fraud, a study out Thursday found that one in five fish tested from U.S. restaurants and stores were sold as something different than what the customer received.

Southern California cases included flounder being sold as the more expensive halibut, and toothfish, which is off-limits for fishing in some places, being sold as sea bass, according to the survey by the environmental group Oceana. Toothfish is also sold as Chilean seabass but is not a member of the sea bass family.

Elsewhere in the country, some mislabeling appeared to be motivated by the desire to sell imported fish as locally sourced.

“Seafood fraud ultimately deceives consumers who fall victim to a bait and switch,” said Oceana Deputy Vice President Beth Lowell. “(It) disguises conservation and health risks, and hurts honest fishermen and seafood businesses. … Our government needs to do more to tackle this once and for all.”

Imports account for 90 percent of the seafood consumed in the U.S. and is the target of the federal Seafood Import Monitoring Program launched last year. The program requires strict reporting requirements for 13 of the most frequently misrepresented imported seafood species.

While there are no studies yet to indicate whether the new rules have reduced labeling fraud among those species, Oceana has applauded the effort. But the 20-year-old international environmental group wants the rules to be expanded to cover all of the nearly 2,000 types of seafood identified by the Food and Drug Administration, both imported and domestic, and is also calling for stronger labeling requirements.

Restaurants fare worst

Attention on seafood sourcing and labeling has been growing. Americans are eating more seafood, both in the overall amount and the number of different species consumed. Americans also increasingly are aware of some species being over-fished to extinction.

To investigate the prevalence of mislabeling beyond the 13 species covered by federal monitoring, Oceana excluded those federally tracked fish from its latest survey. The group performed DNA testing of 449 fish samples from 277 stores and restaurants in 24 states. Among the findings:

  • One of every three establishments surveyed nationwide sold mislabeled seafood.
  • Southern California had slightly more than the 21-percent mislabeling rate found nationwide. Of the 47 fish tested in Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties, 23 percent were mislabeled.
  • Nationwide, sea bass had the highest rate of mislabeling (55 percent), followed by snapper (42 percent).

Sea bass was also the most commonly mislabeled fish in Southern California, with the sea bass-labeled seafood actually being toothfish in four establishments. That was followed by flounder that was labelled as halibut in three venues, rockfish being sold as snapper in two venues, Pacific snapper being sold as silk snapper in one venue and shrimp being sold as lobster in one venue.

Oceana didn’t identify the stores and restaurants where it got the fish because it was often unclear whether those establishments were at fault.

“A lot of times, people want to give the customer what they want even if they don’t have it,” said study author Kimberly Warner. “But sometimes it’s simply a mistake. Or they may have gotten inadequate information from the supplier. There can be mislabeling anywhere in the supply chain, from the fishermen to the importer to the retailer.”

The rate of mislabeling was higher among restaurants (26 percent) and small markets (24 percent) than large chain grocery stories (12 percent). That difference is attributed to large chains being required to follow the FDA’s Country of Origin Labeling laws, which also requires disclosures about whether the fish was farmed or wild and whether it had been frozen.

Oceana identified generic labeling as part of the problem. “Chilean seabass” can end up being called “sea bass” even though it’s not in the sea bass family. Snapper can refer to any of 58 species of the fish. And Atlantic halibut, which is overfished in places, is sometimes sold as the less-endangered Pacific halibut — or simply as halibut.

Data questioned

The California Restaurant Association, commenting in advance of Thursday’s release of the Oceana report, raised questions about the group’s past data.

“While we can’t agree that fish mislabeling happens as often as Oceana’s past reports have suggested, it shouldn’t be tolerated when it does happen,” wrote restaurant association spokeswoman Sharokina Shams in an email.

A 2013 national survey by Oceana found a 33-percent occurrence, a statistic that may be higher than this year’s 21 percent because it included the 13 frequently misrepresented species subsequently targeted by federal law. A 2016 global Oceana survey put the mislabeling rate at 19 percent worldwide.

Asked about Oceana’s call for stricter labeling rules, Shams pointed to existing state law prohibiting mislabeling. But the latest Oceana survey indicated significant shortcomings in enforcing that law.

“While there are voluntary programs and various federal and state laws that oversee the seafood supply, our testing showed that this piecemeal approach was not adequately addressing the problem of seafood fraud,” Oceana’s Lowell said.

The solution is expanding documentation and labeling requirements uniformly on a nationwide level, she said.

Crackdown sought

A task force charged with more closely regulating imported seafood was formed under the Obama administration, with the resulting Seafood Import Monitoring Program launched Jan. 1, 2018, under the Trump administration.

The target is illegal fishing of imported seafood — out-of-season fishing, catching of under-sized and under-aged fish, using prohibited fishing techniques and catching fish banned from capture because of low populations.

The law focuses on seafood that is commonly mislabeled as abalone, mahi mahi, king crab, shrimp, swordfish and various tunas, among others. There are no consumer labeling requirements in the program, which is aimed at regulating fishermen and exporters rather than informing consumers.

The document outlining the rules notes that the goal is “to eventually expand the program to all seafood” — part of what Oceana is pushing for.

Additionally, Oceana and others want:

  • Tracking of fish type and origin throughout the supply chain until the fish is sold to the consumer. The current program stops tracking the fish once they’re sold to the domestic market.
  • Domestic fish tracked from catch to final sale. Tracking now only applies to imported fish.
  • Species specific labeling — as opposed to generic names — that includes origin and whether the fish was farmed. They want this labeling to be required of all retailers and restaurants, not just chain grocery stores.

The federal Seafood Import Monitoring Program “was the first step to specifically address illegal fishing and seafood fraud of some imported seafood,” Lowell said. “Now is the time to finish the job.”

Source: Orange County Register

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