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.