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Oceana Overstates Mislabeled Fish Problem

By now, we all know that the fish we buy has about a one in three chance of being something other than what's on the label. Just how much should we care?
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By now, we all know that the fish we buy has about a one in three chance of being something other than what's on the label.

Just how much should we care?

We can all agree that, in a perfect world, fish would be labeled accurately, but Oceana, an advocacy organization devoted to "protecting the world's oceans," and the latest to test fish samples, would have us believe the mislabeling problem is dire, dire, dire:

"As our results demonstrate, a high level of mislabeling nationwide indicates that seafood fraud harms not only the consumer's pocket book, but also every honest vendor or fisherman along the supply chain. These fraudulent practices also carry potentially serious concerns for the health of consumers, and for the health of our oceans and vulnerable fish populations."

But dig into the report, and it's hard to find evidence for most of those claims.

Oceana collected fish samples from around the country, identified 1215 of them with DNA testing, and found that 401 didn't match the FDA's "Guide to Acceptable Market Names for Seafood Sold in Interstate Commerce." "Oceana Study Reveals Seafood Fraud Nationwide," reads the headline, and the report goes on to use the word "fraud" another 99 times. Read beyond that headline, though, and the picture changes.

The first problem with the report is the standard it uses to determine mislabeling. The FDA's list isn't law, it's a set of "non-binding regulations" that lists the "acceptable market name" of each fish species. The problem is that many fish have many names - what's a pogy to someone like me, who learned to fish on Cape Cod, is a bunker to someone like my husband, who learned to fish on Long Island, but a menhaden to someone at the FDA, whose fishing education is not clear. The list acknowledges some "vernacular" names, but specifies that they "are included ONLY for reference." The emphasis is theirs.

It's an emphasis Oceana takes to heart. "Labeling seafood with something other than the acceptable market name is mislabeling," they say, because "The FDA's general policy on vernacular names is that they are unacceptable market names for seafood." So, even though striped bass is almost always called "rockfish" on large swaths of the East coast, Oceana counts it as mislabeled.

The FDA's list applies only to fish sold interstate and, even then, it is a guideline and not a law. Yet Oceana counts every instance of a label not on the list as fraud.

Let's move on to the specifics of what they uncovered.

Of the 401 "mislabeled" samples, 78 were from two kinds of fish sold under names that, while unrecognized by the FDA, are well-understood vernacular: escolar sold as "white tuna" and Japanese amberjack sold as "yellowtail." Even Oceana acknowledges that selling Japanese amberjack as "yellowtail" doesn't constitute fraud, as Japanese amberjack is yellowtail to everyone but the FDA .

The report doesn't give an inch on escolar, though. This seems odd, since Oceana's own expert, thanked prominently in the report's acknowledgements, tells a different story. In the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Dr. Mahmood Shivji, of Nova Southeastern University's Oceanographic Center, says, "My sense is that this is an unspoken industry standard; that white tuna is escolar even though it's not legal to call it that. It may be such a common practice that restaurants don't even think about it." If all of us, diners and chefs, call escolar "white tuna," is it really fraud?

Moving on, another 173 were substitution of a different variety of the same fish: there was Atlantic cod for Pacific, and Pacific for Atlantic. There was coho salmon for sockeye, and sockeye for coho. There was Antarctic toothfish for Patagonian - both, of course, called Chilean sea bass. The most mislabeled fish was red snapper, but almost half the imposters were either other-than-red snapper or some species of rockfish (an acknowledged snapper substitute in some places

Some of the mislabeling is clearly an attempt to unload bycatch. Find a threadfin slickhead in your net, and it's cod or it's wasted. I'd much rather the fish be mislabeled and eaten than properly labeled and thrown away, and that's undoubtedly the choice at least some of the time.

The biggest real problem is that cheap fish is being passed off as expensive fish (that's not the only problem - it's certainly possible that some mislabeled fish marks illegal harvests). This is fraud, pure and simple, but it's a relatively small subset of the mislabeling, and it's primarily a problem of pocketbook. Oceana, though, isn't content with small and pocketbook. According to them, this is a problem with repercussions for such large, important topics as "the health of consumers" and of "our oceans."

The report calls "most troubling" the health risks, and has four examples. Exhibit A is that escolar, mentioned above. The fish contains an oil that gives some people digestive trouble, and the FDA advises against selling it. "How would anyone know they are eating escolar," the report asks, breathlessly and ungrammatically, "when up to 84 percent of it is fraudulently mislabeled as white tuna?" Yet we've already seen that Oceana's own expert acknowledges that everyone knows escolar is white tuna. In fact, according to the FDA, there's no such thing as white tuna. There is only escolar.

Next, the report mentions the risk of pregnant women unwittingly eating one of the four fish highest in mercury - tilefish, king mackerel, swordfish, and shark - a substitution they found in exactly two instances. This would have to happen an awful lot more before fetal mercury levels became a threat.

And then there's ciguatoxin, a tropical toxin found, according to the CDC, in "barracuda, black grouper, blackfin snapper, cubera snapper, dog snapper, greater amberjack, hogfish, horse-eye jack, king mackerel, and yellowfin grouper." There was one incidence of a suspect fish being switched in (king mackerel for grouper), but there were also three samples in which a suspect fish was switched out.

Last is allergies, and there are no data on how many people suffer allergic reactions because they eat mislabeled fish. Stories that mention this risk (from ABC News, Fox News, and other sources) fail to unearth a single case. The Boston Globe, in a 2011 piece on its own testing of seafood, does mention one US case of poisoning from mislabeled fish, when pufferfish was passed off as monkfish, but that seems to be as close as we come.

On to Oceana's second concern - the health of the oceans. They worry that "overfished, imperiled or vulnerable species are sold as more sustainable catch (e.g. Atlantic halibut sold as
Pacific halibut)," a substitution their study found. They don't mention that their study also found Pacific halibut sold as Atlantic, and there were many more substitutions of sustainable fish for imperiled than vice versa.

Between its lines, though, the Oceana report offers a glimpse of the solution to the problem of how we manage to feed fish to a growing population. Although the report fails to document a serious health or environmental hazard, it does prove one thing unequivocally: consumers can't tell one fish from another. It takes DNA testing to tell cod from hake or perch from snapper. Or, most importantly, farmed from wild.

Although fish farming is not without its problems, we can strike at least one of the commonly made objections to it - its taste - off the list. The frequency with which it is substituted for wild, and our absolute inability to detect it, is incontrovertible proof that tilapia, pangasius, and farmed salmon taste just fine.

The question here isn't whether fish should be labeled accurately; of course it should. The question is why an environmental advocacy group is blowing the problem out of all proportion, and painting it as grave threat to health and environment. To scare us away from eating fish, perhaps? If Oceana were to convince us to eat less of what is unequivocally one of the most healthful protein sources on our planet, it might indeed further their agenda of "protecting the world's oceans." But what implications would that have for human health, particularly if meat were substituted for fish? It is our collective responsibility to safeguard our oceans and fish stocks. That's a difficult, complex job, and we need all the clear thinking and solid science we can get. This report provides neither.

Widen the lens beyond fish, and we're confronted with a food supply rife with problems that have significant, well-documented implications for the well-being of our planet, our livestock, and our own selves. At the same time, we have scarce and dwindling public resources to devote to improving that food supply. Do we really want to heed Oceana's call to spend more of those resources on mislabeled fish?

I'm going to say no.