Sushi eaters susceptible to fishy labels

2013-02-22 13:17
As the world grapples with the horse meat saga, a new study of fish bought and genetically tested by a non-profit ocean protection group Oceana has revealed some startling findings, the New York Times reports.

Out of 120 samples labeled red snapper that had been bought for testing from restaurants, markets and sushi bars a total of 28 different species of fish were found, including 17 that were not even in the snapper family.

It seems you the consumer are most likely to be misled in sushi bars while grocery stores were deemed to be selling fish honestly, according to the study. Restaurants ranked in the middle.

Part of the problem, said the study’s chief author, Kimberly Warner, is that there are quite simply a lot of fish in the sea, and many of them look alike. Over all, the study found that about one-third of the 1,215 fish samples bought, from 2010 to 2012, were mislabeled.

“Even a relatively educated consumer couldn’t look at a whole fish and say, ‘I’m sure that’s a red snapper and not lane snapper,’ ” she said.

Invented marketing names

The study goes on to confirm that some fish are given different names to bypass the real name which might not be as appealing. A fish called “slimehead” — its real name -  is probably not going to fly off the menu. Calling it “orange roughy” is apparently much better and the distinction is allowed by the Federal Food and Drug Administration according to the report . Another example is the  Patagonian toothfish which is instead called the  Chilean sea bass.

The Oceana study did not declare a fish mislabeled if the seller was following the federal guidelines.

But what the study found pervasive was mislabeling — beyond what is allowed by federal food regulators — by retail outlets using a name that consumers are more likely to want to buy. Almost two-thirds of the “wild” salmon samples, for example, were found actually to be farmed Atlantic salmon, which is considered less healthy and environmentally sustainable.

The National Fisheries Institute, a trade group, said in a statement that reputable members of the seafood community are fighting fraud, and that the federal government should “fulfill its mandate,” to enforce food fraud laws already on the books.

Dr Warner said that the study did raise some red flags about health. Fish known to accumulate mercury in their flesh, in particular, should be avoided, especially by pregnant women. But in what the study called “one of the most egregious swaps,” in New York, tilefish — known for its mercury content and on federal advisory lists for sensitive populations to avoid — was sold as red snapper. Tilefish was also found substituted for halibut.

She also cautioned that the study did not aim to produce a real scientific, top-to-bottom sampling of the seafood system. And the Oceana study’s authors also could not determine where in the food chain the mislabeling arose — the wholesaler, the retailer or at the fishing dock itself — or whether it came about through misunderstanding or deliberate concealment.

(photo: shutterstock)
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