Commentary

Something's Rotten In The State Of Fishmongering

A new report from the international ocean advocacy group Oceana claims that seafood fraud is rampant, not only undermining legal fishermen but also "consumer-driven efforts to do the right thing and ask for species that are responsibly managed," as Susan Carpenter reports in the Los Angeles Times' Greenspace blog.

DNA tests of 1,000 samples from dozens of U.S. cities found that only 50% of the fish tested were the species listed on the label. Fish labeled as red snapper, wild salmon and Atlantic cod are actually other fish 25% to 70% of the time, according to "Bait and Switch: How Seafood Fraud Hurts Our Oceans, Our Wallets and Our Health," with rockfish and tilapia often substituted for snapper, farmed salmon for wild salmon, and pollock for Atlantic cod.

Douglas Karas, a spokesman for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, tells Carpenter that the agency has been developing a library that can be used to identify seafood species with DNA barcoding and is currently using DNA sequencing equipment at some field labs to combat "misbranding that results in both seafood safety and economic adulteration violations." But it does not currently have a seafood tracking database and it is unsure how often fish substitution actually occurs.

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The New York Times' Elisabeth Rosenthal writes this morning that "environmentalists, scientists and foodies are complaining that regulators are lax in policing seafood, and have been slow to adopt the latest scientific tools."

Michael Hirshfield, chief scientist of Oceana, tells Rosenthal that "customers buying fish have a right to know what the heck it is and where it's from, but agencies like the FDA are not taking this as seriously as they should."

The piece points out that certain steaks or fillets that have been scaled are difficult to distinguish from one another using traditional methods and many wind up in the market frozen and lathered with a sauce. But the new DNA testing could allow hundreds of thousands of samples to be rigorously tested each year, according to Paul Hebert, scientific director of the Barcode of Life project, which maintains an electronic reference library covering 8,000 varieties of fish compiled by biologists over the last five years. And testing costs under $1 per sample for labs that own the equipment.

Reacting to the story, some consumers are aghast; others predictably say, "so whaddya telling me here?"

"There really is nothing left to eat. If I can't grow it myself or buy from a neighbor farmer then I have no idea what I am really eating," says one commenter to the New York Times' story. Writes another: "Brings to mind my grandmother, who used to complain that scallops she occasionally saw on the market were actually "punched out of skate wing." (She died over 50 years ago, so this "mislabeling" doesn't seem new.)"

It's not new, of course. In July 2004, CBS Evening News' Cynthia Bowers reported on a study out of the University of North Carolina that found that "many unscrupulous fish wholesalers were mislabeling fresh fish. Three-quarters of the samples sold as red snapper, for example, turned out to be a different, if related, species.

"We thought we might find a few mislabeled fish, but we had no idea we would find so many mislabeled," said researcher Peter Marko at the time an accompanying story by Jaime Holguin. And a wholesaler said that he'd been in the business long enough to know that dealers could fake anything. "It goes on behind closed doors. What they do is, they change the package and they don't put any name on it," he said.

Indeed, fish mongering hasn't been what it presumably used to be for many years. As a young reporter for a New York City tabloid some 30 years ago or so, I was sent to the Fulton Fish Market to ferret out some quotes after the feds issued indictments alleging all sorts of corruption on the cobblestone streets and in the stalls. Nobody I talked to seem to know nuttin'. Then one guy with beefy, gnarled hands took me aside and, in a voice gruff enough for a Scorsese film, told me flat out: "Kid, your questions stink."

Everybody's a critic, right? Have a good Memorial Day weekend.

1 comment about "Something's Rotten In The State Of Fishmongering ".
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  1. Brad Stewart from Molecule Inc., May 27, 2011 at 10:29 a.m.

    Thanks for the insightful report, Thom. Get ready for the pundits to come flooding in saying that green marketing is completely dead, and that consumers everywhere are now going to abjectly reject any claims whatsoever, instead of demanding stricter regulations.

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