Here in the SF Bay Area, crab season is in full bloom, so to speak, and I’m loving it. However, something that has always unnerved me about buying seafood is that I know there is a substantial chance that I’m getting ripped off. Various newspapers have written articles about how difficult it is for merchants to figure out what they are really getting from fishmongers. And end users of fish are often fooled as well.
Fish Are Commonly Mislabeled, Study Finds and Survey Finds That Fish Are Often Not What Label Says (NY Times) are representative of a rising tide of discontent. The studies find that a huge fraction of retail outlets sell mislabeled fish, and even restaurants are fooled sometimes. There have been other studies, too like this ad hoc sampling in New York where some of the outlandish “explanations” offered by fish merchants were downright funny.
The problem is especially bad for those who eat a disproportionate amount of seafood, such as sushi-lovers or those who are trying to cut down carbs by eating more of everything else (raises hand). If you thought you were eating low-mercury seafood and it turns out that someone sold you high-mercury seafood, that has obvious deleterious effects on your health.
What you can do about it
The good news is that scientists can analyze fish DNA to conclusively determine the origins of the fish. This is known as “fish barcoding.” Unfortunately, fish barcoding is not yet mandatory, so testing is spotty.
Until the FDA and consumer protection agencies force compliance, you can attempt to protect yourself by buying seafood from businesses affiliated with the Better Seafood Board, on the theory that it would take an especially daring, hypocritical business to be on that member list and to cheat customers at the same time.
If you live near a farmers market that sells fish, that might also work, if you trust the merchant. Given studies in New York and elsewhere, though, buyer beware. Here’s a line from the 2005 NY Times article I linked to above: “Federal regulations governing country-of-origin labeling took effect on Monday. They require fish to carry a paper trail back to the source, but they apply to full-service markets like grocery stores, not to fish markets.”
Or just buy from Costco. Yes, really. Costco is fairly protective of its customers, and there have been incidents where Costco terminated relationships with suppliers that it caught cheating. On the other hand, even companies like Costco and Whole Foods might inadvertently sell you short. As the 2005 NY Times article noted, the Whole Foods “wild” salmon appeared to be farmed salmon that escaped into the wild. That’s not Whole Foods’s fault, but it bears mentioning.