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Editorial: Fishy business is worth investigating

The odds are that diners who take the bait and pay a hefty price for a gourmet fish like red snapper or Chilean sea bass are being played for suckers. As often as not, the fish they pay for is not the fish they’re served but a less expensive substitute. In one series of tests cited by the conservation group Oceana, for example, up to three-quarters of the fish labeled as red snapper was actually something else.

This month, the Boston Globe published a lengthy expose by reporters Jenn Abelson and Beth Daley on the mistaken, deceptive or potentially fraudulent labeling of seafood by restaurants, fish distributors and retailers. One restaurant charged for red snapper but served tilapia, an inexpensive farm-raised fish. Another substituted a cheaper snapper relative for the real thing. The mislabeling of inexpensive Pacific cod as pricey Atlantic cod was commonplace. Some Boston landmarks were caught serving mislabeled seafood, and not for the first time, by the Globe, which paid to have DNA tests done on fish samples.

Kudos to the Globe for trying to keep the poorly regulated seafood industry honest. The problem is global and one that Congress has given too little attention to. States too, have largely taken a hands-off approach and, as far as we could discover, no New Hampshire agency has ever conducted DNA tests of seafood to verify its seller’s claims. It’s about time one of them did. At one lab used by the Globe, DNA testing 95 samples of fish cost about $4,000; testing just a single sample at another lab, $84.

Nationally, the mislabeling of seafood, as well as other tricks by dishonest fishmongers, cheats consumers out of billions of dollars every year. Atlantic cod, for example, costs $4 per pound more than Pacific cod; coho salmon is much cheaper than King salmon; wild salmon more expensive than farm-raised fish. Customers also overpay when vendors pay seafood prices for ice and water. In 2010, a joint testing effort by agencies in 17 states found more than 21,000 packages of seafood whose weight was up to 40 percent water. A similar fraud occurs when scallops are treated with additives that allow them to retain extra water or where extra breading is used on a seafood product.

New Hampshire diners and shoppers would save many times the cost of the periodic random testing of fish by the food protection division of the state Health and Human Services Department or some other agency. The testing wouldn’t have to be comprehensive to have a big effect. No restaurant owner, chef, retailer or distributor wants the kind of publicity that comes with getting caught cheating customers.

Mislabeled seafood also carries health risks that can be serious or even fatal. One restaurant in the Globe investigation served an oily fish called escolar, also known as snake mackerel, instead of tuna. Escolar, particularly if eaten in quantity, can cause severe gastrointestinal distress and oily, orange diarrhea that can last for days. Mislabeled fish can cause allergic reactions in some people, contain toxins, or dose consumers with an unacceptable level of mercury, lead or some other contaminant. The likelihood of contamination increases when seafood comes from nation’s with lax environmental laws and regulatory agencies.

Several federal agencies make a limited effort to combat seafood fraud, but the widespread nature of the problem is proof that they aren’t doing enough. States, which have the power to levy fines and impose sanctions, should emulate organizations like Oceana, Consumer Reports and the Boston Globe, and run spot DNA tests to keep the industry honest. We urge lawmakers and Gov.-elect Maggie Hassan to do so. They, and consumers, might be surprised at what they find.

Legacy Comments6

How about we have another class of stores and restaurants for all that want no regulations. They could have a big sign out front saying eat and buy here to protest the big gov't rules. They could buy meat from processors that are exempt from all inspections, fish is sold as is whatever they call it however it is processed, the restaurants would never be inspected for sanitation and you can put anything you want on a label as no one will every look at the product. Same for those darn airport inspections, lets have a couple special planes a day that anyone walks on board with any thing they want as it will be guaranteed no inspection will be done. We can live on trust because history has shown that people and companies would never cheat or lie to the public. Now all that gives me a warm fuzzy feeling.

Like I said....'I believe its already against the law to sell mislabeled food at restaurants. What remains unclear, is whose job is it to enforce the law? ".....What do you want to do Jim....Make it a law that its against the law to not enforce the laws???? Just enforce the laws we already have on the books....Start there.

I agree with you 100%. My original post was referring to those that want less regulations saying that they are not needed. To answer your question, we have the FDA in place now and I believe they are responsible for inspections. Take some of the people setting in offices and put them out inspecting.

I read the Globe article. Some of us read more than one paper to get a perspective on different views. I was born and raised in MA. Ever since I can remember the state has always been corrupt. More so than other states I have lived in. The restaurants that were surveyed know the difference between haddock and say cod or any other species. Savy diners do also. They are atempting to make a profit by giving you cheaper fish and hoping you will be fooled. I eat a lot of fish and very rarely here in NH have I gotten fooled. MA should close them down for so many days as a penalty and make surprise inspections. Scammers out there. I do think as consumers we need to be aware of what we buy. Not up to the govt to do your shopping for you. We are not children here. Many think that we are so dumb, that we need big govt to protect us. Such a defeatist attitude.

And yet there are those that want to do away with more regulations protecting the consumer….. With laws in place now and one test here showing 75% of the tested product to not be what it said it was, why would anyone think having less laws would be better? You can called it a nanny government but a nanny is hired to watch over children because they can’t be trusted to do the right thing. I’m thinking we need a nanny 24/7 because there is just too much lying and cheating going on for the one we have now to keep up with.

Hmmm...I believe its already against the law to sell mislabeled food at restaurants. What remains unclear, is whose job is it to enforce the law? Call me crazy but I'm thinking that might be law enforcements job. Who is law enforcement?? Local cops? State Police? AG?? On my daily commute of 12 miles to work, I usually pass 1-3 cops sitting there watching traffic. Maybe these "law enforcement" personnel could pull themselves away and know...enforce the law???

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