Is Your Fish Dish What You Paid For?

A recent study found that fish fraud is absolutely a real thing. Here's what you can do about it.

It would be pretty obvious if you ordered a steak at a restaurant and received a chicken breast instead, but would you notice fish fraud if it happened to you? Even as a culinary-trained professional chef, I’m not sure how I could know if a fish was caught illegally or if the fish was imported instead of sourced locally.

It’s these types of issues that Oceana (a nonprofit ocean advocacy group) is hoping to uncover. In a recent study, they found that fish fraud is not only real, it’s widespread: Up to 20 percent of fish served in restaurants, seafood markets and large grocery stores is not what’s on the label.

Between March and August 2018, Oceana collected 400 fish samples from more than 250 locations in 24 states. After sending the DNA to a lab, they discovered that one in every five fish they tested was mislabeled. Not only that, more than 30 percent of visited establishments were participating in the fraud.

Why Is Fish Fraud a Problem?

For starters, fish fraud affects your pocketbook. You might unintentionally be consuming cheaper, less desirable fish or buying farmed fish for the price of a wild-caught one. It also hurts the local fishing community and is an affront to support-local campaigns, fooling you into buying a “locally caught” fish that’s really sourced from halfway across the world.

More importantly, mislabeled seafood can be a health risk. In the report, Kimberly Warner, senior scientist at Oceana, discusses how the “troubling levels of deception in the seafood we feed our families” means that you don’t know what you’re putting into your body, even if you’re trying to make healthy choices.

At best, the catch is not a sustainable species, but at worst it could be farmed with chemicals not allowed in the United States or have a higher mercury content than the fish you intended to purchase. No, thank you!

High-mercury fish is just one food pregnant women should avoid.

What Can We Do About It?

This isn’t the first time Oceana has done a study like this. Their previous findings prompted the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to create an initiative—the Seafood Import Monitoring Program (SIMP)—to monitor 13 species labeled as high-risk for fish fraud, including Atlantic and Pacific cod, mahi-mahi, swordfish, tunas and red snapper. If you want to be sure you’re getting what you paid for, pick up one of the fish on this list. We can only hope that this recent study will prompt more boat-to-plate traceability for additional species.

If the fish on the SIMP list aren’t available at your local grocery store, learn how to make substitutions! Since the study found that fish sold under generic names (like sea bass, catfish or snapper) were most likely to be mislabeled, we recommend looking for named fish from specific regions. It never hurts to learn more about which fish are seasonal in your area, too.

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Lindsay D. Mattison
After years of working in professional kitchens, Lindsay traded her knives in for the pen. While she spends most of her time writing these days, she still exercises her culinary muscles on the regular, taking any opportunity to turn local, seasonal ingredients into beautiful meals for her family.