What is Seafood Fraud?
The names of different fish species are being changed along the supply chain to enhance their marketability. This calculated obfuscation intentionally creates a situation where we simply do not know what species of fish we are consuming.
The importance of the Sea
“The oceans give us more than half of the oxygen we breath, regulates the climate, gives us all the seafood and recreational opportunities” explains Marine Ecologist, Enric Sala. Yet we treat our oceans with no respect and overexploited their resources.
According to The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “growing human population worldwide lead to an increase of 8-fold in fish production, from about 15 to 120 million tons/year, from 1950 to 2008.”
Fishing Down the Food Cain
Today, “90% of the large predators in the ocean are gone” explains Oceanographer, Sylvia Earle, and “less than 1% of the ocean is protected” adds Marine Ecologist, Enric Sala. We have taken too many fish out of the sea, and we did so before the remaining populations was able to reproduce. “If we’ll continue fishing at current rates fisheries worldwide will collapse before 2050” claims, Enric Sala.
Where Does Our Seafood Come From?
91% of seafood eaten in the U.S. is imported (Oceana). In 2011, the U.S. trade deficit in seafood was $11.2 billion. That number grows annually and is second only to oil (National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration). A large portion of seafood products in the U.S. comes from Asia (The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations). The major exporters to the U.S. in 2012 included China, Thailand, Canada, Vietnam and Indonesia (National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration).
“all of the seafood sold in the U.S. is either caught by fishing vessels or raised in aquaculture facilities (Step 1). During primary processing (either at-sea or on land), the head and guts of the fish are removed, making it easier to transport and prevent spoilage. At-sea processors and transport vessels frequently deliver fish to large plants in countries where labor is cheap to begin secondary processing of the fish (Step 2).
Secondary processing includes thawing the fish to allow trimming, deboning, breading, cooking, and packaging for wholesale or retail sales (Step 3). This is the point of mislabeling, at which different fish species are given more marketable names. Finally the seafood meal is exported to the U.S. and enters the same product supply chain as most prepared foods (Step 4).
Seafood is often sold through specialty distributors or may be sourced nationwide by a broad-line distributor such as Sysco or Aramark. Wholesale and retail food service establishments then sell seafood to consumers (Step 5).”
Only 2% of seafood imported into the US is inspected and just 0.001% is inspected for fraud (National Aquerium).
Correct answers: 1. Fish on the left is escolar or oilfish. 2. Left is Nile perch. 3. Right is mako shark. 4. Right is rockfish. 5. Left is farmed Atlantic salmon.
Risks of Seafood Fraud
Seafood fraud entails various health risks, such as:
- Ciguatera, which is fish poisoning caused by eating certain reef fishes whose flesh, is contaminated with toxins produced by a marine microalgae.
- Allergens, which may be the most life threatening risk of seafood fraud. Fish and shellfish are among the most common food allergies in the U.S., along with peanuts and tree nuts.
- Fish raised in aquaculture pens can carry antibiotics and dyes
that would not be present in wild fish. The use of antibiotics in aquaculture can also lead to the spread of drug-resistant bacteria in species such as catfish.
Seafood Fraud in the U.S.
In 2012, as part of Oceana’s Seafood Fraud Campaign, Oceana DNA tested seafood from grocery stores, restaurants and sushi venues round the U.S. to see if seafood fraud is occurring. Nationwide, the mislabeling of seafood is most prevalent in California (38-52%), New York City (39%) and Miami (38%).
Yet outside of some guidelines put forth by the Food and Drug Administration, there is no current federal legislation to combat seafood fraud (both intentional and unintentional). Oceana urges Federal agencies and Congress to act to stop seafood fraud.
Knowledge is Power
Until proper legislation will be enacted and enforced, I believe we should utilize the ability to share information to pressure the industry. If consumers know which wholesale and retail food service sale mislabeled fish, they can stop buying seafood from. In turn those wholesale and retail food service will stop purchasing mislabeled fish from distributors. Then distributors will stop buying mislabeled fish from the processors, and so on. I believe that the power of our dollar can help us pressure the industry to stop the seafood fraud and eventually help save our seas.
In order to provide people with this knowledge I wish to create a rating system for grocery stores, restaurants and sushi venues in New York City according to their % of fish mislabeling:
1 starfish = 100% mislabeling.
5 starfish = 0% mislabeling.
This rating system will be accessible through a website or\and a mobile application (similarly to Yelp) and will:
- Include links to the services provider’s website
- Possibly be integrated in Google Maps.
- Include interactive educational features to teach people how to make healthier seafood choices.
To make this project come to life I have to overcome a few challenges:
- Building a website or\and a mobile application without programming knowledge.
- Getting DNA testing information from Oceania.
- Keeping the information updated.