Something smells fishy

By Lauren Mazzo
September 08, 2016

You might already check your food for sneaky extra sodium and sugars and try to nix any other scary additives. You might count your calories or macros, and try to buy organic produce when you can. You might even reach for cage-free eggs and pasture-fed meat. As far as healthy grocery shopping goes, you're killing it.

But would you ever think to question your seafood? The latest research says, yes, you should. Fish fraud is apparently a really big thing. One in five seafood samples worldwide is mislabeled, meaning there's a good chance you're not getting what you're paying for, according to research by Oceana (an ocean conservation advocacy group).

Seafood mislabeling was found in every part of the fish food chain, from retail, wholesale, and distribution, to import/export, packaging and processing, and is shockingly widespread in 55 countries. (FYI this isn't the first we've heard about fish fraud in NYC. Check out this interactive map from Oceana to see how bad your area really is.)

Think you're splurging on some tuna? That could actually be whale meat. Think you're trying some Brazilian shark? There's a good chance it's large tooth sawfish. Pangasius (also called Asian catfish) was found to be the most commonly substituted fish worldwide and is frequently disguised as wild, higher-value fish. Across the world, Asian catfish has stood in for 18 types of fish, including perch, grouper, halibut, and cod. There was even a case where caviar samples were found to have no animal DNA at all, according to the study.

But while the money you're shelling out for impostor seafood is frustrating, there's something even scarier about this fake fish-how it affects your health. Almost 60 percent of the mislabeled seafood posed a species-specific health risk to consumers, meaning they might unknowingly be eating fish that could make them sick, according to the study. This isn't necessarily about being allergic or intolerant to certain types of seafood; mislabeled fish might not undergo adequate screening for things like parasites, environmental chemicals, aquaculture drugs, and other natural toxins.

For example, one commonly mislabeled fish is escolar, which has a naturally occurring toxin called gempylotoxin that's associated with oily bowel discharge, nausea, vomiting and stomach cramps. You probably haven't heard of escolar, but you've probably nommed on some white tuna. Well, Oceana's seafood fraud investigations revealed more than 50 cases of escolar being sold as "white tuna" in sushi restaurants in the U.S.

And this isn't even getting into the fact that many of these substituted fish are being caught illegally and are sometimes under watch for being near-extinct.


So what's a sushi-loving girl to do? Because the fraud happens throughout the supply chain, it's not so easy to discern whether your fish is a fraud. Luckily, the European Union has implemented strong policies on fishing and transparency in the industry and has since seen rates of fish fraud drop. Next, the U.S. is poised to make similar changes; as of February 2016, the National Ocean Council Committee to Combat Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing and Seafood Fraud announced its proposal for creating a U.S. seafood traceability program that should seriously cut down on this sketchy fish business.

In the meantime, you can do your part to ease over-fishing by switching to small fish (here are some healthy recipes that use the little guys), or trying to buy fresh, local, and whole fish as often as possible. (And, on the bright side, at least fish oil supplements give you almost the same omega-3 benefits as the real thing.)

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