That rosy slab of fresh tuna you bought for dinner? There's a good chance it's not really tuna.
And the tuna sushi you ordered the other night? It's almost certainly not tuna.
The nonprofit ocean-protection group Oceana conducted one of the largest seafood-fraud investigations in the world from 2010 to 2012. It did DNA testing on 1,215 samples of fish from 674 retail outlets in 21 states and found there really is something fishy about our fish: One in three samples nationwide was mislabeled.
Today more than 90 percent of the seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported, and less than 1 percent is inspected by the government specifically for fraud, says Oceana. This means the chances are high that you're being served a kind of fish that's completely different from what you paid for. (Think of it as paying for a T-bone steak and getting chuck instead.)
Here are some of Oceana's astonishing findings from the national study:
- Fifty-nine percent of fish labeled as "tuna" is not really tuna.
- Nearly 75 percent of sushi restaurants visited had mislabeled fish, far more than either grocery stores or other kinds of restaurants.
- Eighty-seven percent of fish labeled as "red snapper" is not snapper. Only seven of the 120 samples of red snapper purchased nationwide were really red snapper; the other 113 samples were one of six other species of fish.
- In Chicago; Austin, Texas; New York; and Washington, D.C., every sushi restaurant sampled sold mislabeled tuna. All snapper samples from Washington, D.C., were also mislabeled.
- Eighty-four percent of fish labeled "white tuna" was actually escolar, a species sometimes called the Ex-Lax fish because it can cause serious digestive issues - as in, orange, oily diarrhea - for some individuals who eat more than a few ounces.
- Southern California had the highest mislabeling rate nationwide, with 52 percent of samples, followed by 49 percent in Austin and Houston, and 48 percent in Boston.
- Grocery stores did better than restaurants, with only 18 percent of fish samples found to be mislabeled.
Fish fraud is bad both for our wallets - who wants to pay for pricey tuna that isn't tuna? - and our health, say Oceana's researchers. For example, king mackerel, a fish on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's "Do Not Eat" list for vulnerable groups because of its high mercury content, was sold as grouper in a South Florida grocery store, the survey found.
Plus, the high level of fraud hurts honest fishermen and businesses, who get pushed out of the market by unscrupulous vendors selling mislabeled fish for below-market prices.
Who's to blame? It's hard to say. Restaurants depend on what their suppliers tell them. Suppliers point to other intermediaries. It's become a guessing game from bait to plate.
What can the consumer do? Until seafood traceability is required all along the supply chain, these are Oceana's tips:
Check the price. If the price is too good to be true, it probably is and you are likely purchasing a completely different species from what is on the label.
Purchase the whole fish. When possible, consumers can purchase the whole fish, which makes it more difficult to swap one species for another. Your fishmonger can then de-bone and fillet it for you.
Ask questions. Consumers should ask more questions, including what kind of fish it is, if it is wild or farm-raised, and where, when and how it was caught.