A Consumer Reports investigation shows that more than one-fifth of 190 pieces of seafood bought at retail stores and restaurants in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut were not what they claimed to be — either mislabeled as different species of fish, incompletely labeled or misidentified by employees.
CR sent the fresh and frozen fish samples to an outside lab for DNA testing.
Researchers extracted genetic material from each sample and compared the genetic sequences against standardized gene fragments — these can identify species in much the same way criminal investigators use genetic fingerprinting.
Among CR's findings:
- Only four of the 14 types of fish bought — Chilean sea bass, coho salmon, bluefin tuna and ahi tuna — were always identified correctly.
- Eighteen percent of the samples didn't match the names on placards, labels or menus. Fish were incorrectly passed off as catfish, grey sole, grouper, halibut, king salmon, lemon sole, red snapper, sockeye salmon and yellowfin tuna.
- Four percent were incompletely labeled or misidentified by employees.
- All 10 of the "lemon soles" and 12 of the 22 "red snappers" weren't the claimed species.
- One sample, labeled as grouper, was actually tilefish, which averages three times more mercury as grouper. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration advises women of childbearing age and children to avoid tilefish entirely.
- Three of the 21 "catfish" samples were Pangasius hypophthalmus, or sutchi catfish.
None of the three bore country-of-origin labels (they were bought in small fish markets, where such labeling isn't required), but sutchi catfish are largely imported from Vietnam, where some fish farmers use drugs that are not approved in the U.S.
The rest were Ictaluridae, the only family that can be marketed in the U.S. as "catfish," according to a law Congress passed in 2002.
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Federal law requires seafood to be labeled in a way that's truthful, not misleading, and in accordance with federal regulations.
If the FDA, which oversees seafood labeling, discovers fish fraud, it has the authority to slap companies with warning letters, seize seafood and prevent businesses from importing fish.
But FDA experts say it's primarily the responsibility of state and local agencies, not the FDA, to regulate retail food stores and restaurants. In New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, where the tested fish was purchased, state officials told CR that their inspectors aren't trained to differentiate among fish species and that they focus their limited resources on food safety.
The FDA says that all imports are screened before they enter the country and that a subset is inspected based on its potential risk.
All investigators are trained to identify and document evidence of fraud and will detain seafood mislabeled with fictitious names. The agency has purchased DNA-sequencing equipment for five FDA field laboratories. It anticipates using the equipment to start testing imported and domestic seafood species, usually before they reach the retail market.
According to a 2009 Government Accountability Office report, the FDA has spent little time looking for seafood fraud in recent years.
Eighty-six percent of the seafood Americans consumed in 2010 was imported, mainly from Canada, China, Ecuador, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam.
But FDA officials physically examined only about 2 percent of imported seafood from fiscal 2003 to 2008. Only about 0.05 percent of the examined seafood was checked for seafood fraud (mislabeled, substituted or short-weighted items), according to the GAO report.
Consumers Union, the public policy and advocacy division of Consumer Reports, supports legislation introduced this year in the U.S. Senate to help prevent seafood fraud, standardize labeling and strengthen cooperation among federal agencies that oversee seafood safety.
When shopping for fish, consumers should consider species that are abundant, well-managed, fished or farmed in ways that minimize harm to the environment, and low in contaminants such as mercury and PCBs, CR recommends.
For more on labeling, go to www.GreenerChoices.org.
Consumers Union Inc.