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The High Cost of Seafood Fraud
Mislabeling doubles consumers’ costs; Farmed fish are often mislabeled as wild
8/8/2013By Craig Weatherby
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Image People can be confident about the source, identity, and superior quality of our seafood. 

Why is this true?

The Vital Choice staff who source our seafood are former Alaska/Northwest fishermen who really know their stuff … founder/president Randy Hartnell, COO Dave Hamburg, shipping master Terry Hartnell, and seafood buyer Rich Walsh.

And many of our canned and packaged fish products bear the blue Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification seal.

The MSC seal on a label means two things:
  • The seafood was harvested responsibly and sustainably.
  • MSC auditors probed its supply chain to ensure that no substitutions could occur.
Vital Choice tip led to the first major media report
Back in 2004, Randy Hartnell led famed nutrition-health expert Andrew Weil, M.D., on a tour of New York City’s the Fulton Fish Market.
Why frozen is better … but also is a source of “fresh” fraud
We couldn’t agree more with Oceana, whose report concludes that frozen fish is generally a better choice, versus “fresh” fish.

This general rule holds true as long as fish was truly fresh when frozen and hasn’t been thawed and re-frozen several times.

These quotes from Oceana’s Seafood Sticker Shock report paint an accurate picture of the advantages of frozen fish: 
  • “Fresh fish is typically more expensive than frozen, yet experts from the seafood industry suggest it is not always in better condition.”
  • “At sea, fresh fish are typically stored on ice until they reach the dock, where they are transported by refrigerated trucks to warehouses and retail stores. Depending on how long this process takes, these ―fresh‖ fish may be in transit on ice for up to a week and end up in poorer condition than high-quality frozen fish.”
  • “Alternatively, fresh fish may be essentially the same frozen fish that has been thawed for display, in which case it should be labeled as previously frozen.”
And these points from the new report describe Vital Choice fish perfectly:
  • “Another option for higher-quality fish is buying seafood that has been ‘flash frozen’ or ‘frozen at sea’ … [which means] … fish that are exposed to subzero temperatures within a few hours of being caught.”
  • “This extreme cold is intended to reduce the formation of ice crystals and allow the fish to be transported longer distances. Although this process labels the fish as frozen, it immediately preserves the taste and quality by slowing cell degradation, whereas ‘fresh’ fish on ice continue to degrade in quality until they reach your plate.” 

As an experienced salmon fisherman, Randy quickly noticed that wholesalers were labeling farmed salmon as wild … see “Salmon Buyer Beware”.

That experience prompted Randy to alert Marian Burros of The New York Times, which published a report confirming what he’d witnessed … see “NY Times Calls Wild Salmon a Gamble for Consumers”.

A new report from the advocacy group Oceana presents the results of their investigation into the high cost of seafood fraud to consumers.

Report quantifies the cost of fraud to consumers 
Oceana was formed to protect the oceans and boost the sustainability of commercial seafood operations.

Over the past nine months, they’ve released three reports as part of their ongoing series of seafood fraud investigations.

You can read our summaries of these Oceana studies in “Illegal Fishing Fuels Fraud”, “Fishy Bait & Switch Continues”, “Fish Fraud Marches On” … and peruse related reports in the “Seafood Labeling & Fraud Issues” section of our news archive.

Their February, 2013 report revealed that one-third of seafood tested across the country was mislabeled … with label fraud reaching 39 percent in the New York area.

Yesterday, Oceana released a new report titled Seafood Sticker Shock: Why you may be paying too much for your fish.

Their investigation found that American consumers who pay for one type of fish often receive a less expensive or less desirable one ... and that commonly “swapped” species can cost up to twice as much as their cheaper counterparts.

“Swapping a lower cost fish for a higher value one is like ordering a filet mignon and getting a hamburger instead,” said report author and Oceana senior scientist Margot Stiles. “If a consumer eats mislabeled fish even just once a week, they could be losing up to hundreds of dollars each year due to seafood fraud.”
Report details the high cost of fish-fraud
Oceana investigators interviewed seafood industry experts to determine what drives cost differences for different species, and they reviewed 300 menus from 12 different cities to estimate average retail prices.

According to the report, a substitution of lower cost species like farmed tilapia for the more expensive wild grouper could gouge consumers more than $10 for an eight ounce fillet in a restaurant.

Restaurant diners who order an 8-ounce fillet of grouper – which the average restaurant sells for $27 – lose $12 when they are instead served a tilapia fillet worth an average of $15.

Likewise, the common mislabeling of farmed Atlantic salmon as wild salmon add an average of $6 – and often much more that that – to a diner’s bill.

Consumers also fall victim to fraud in grocery stores, where fillets of higher-cost fish are priced an average of $4 more than cheaper substitutes.

Such dramatic price differences provide strong economic incentives that foster widespread fraud.

Farmed salmon is commonly labeled wild
The most commonly mislabeled fish are snapper and tuna.

But much of the fraud that Oceana found involves “farmed-for-wild” scams ... such as the salmon-labeling fraud Randy Hartnell found in New York nine years ago.

As the Oceana report says, “Wild salmon costs roughly twice the price of farmed salmon in grocery stores and almost $6 more on average in restaurants ... [even] restaurants in Washington State were caught serving farmed salmon as wild salmon.”

In a section titled Wild vs. Farmed Fish: Salmon, the Oceana report details some of the eco and health advantages of wild salmon.

However, they overlooked the nutritional disadvantages of farmed salmon, which provide just as many omega-3s, but much higher levels of omega-6 fatty acids, total fat, and saturated fat.

Omega-6 fatty acids compete with omega-3s for absorption into our cells, and diets high in omega-6s (such as the standard American diet) are virtually proven to promote a variety of chronic diseases ... see “Farmed Salmon's Diet Yields Unhealthful Cardiovascular Effects” and “America’s Sickening ‘Omega Imbalance’”.)

Key questions: What is that fish, and was it farmed or wild-caught?
Seafood follows a complex path from boat to plate, and each point in the supply chain offers an opportunity for fraud.

“Consumers deserve to know their seafood is safe, legally caught and honestly labeled, including information like where, when and how it was taken out of the ocean. The more information that follows the fish, the harder it will be for fraudsters to rip off American consumers,” said Oceana's Margot Stiles.

In March, Congress introduced legislation targeting seafood fraud, known as the Safety and Fraud Enforcement for Seafood (SAFE) Act, which would require traceability for all seafood sold in the U.S.

We urge you to sign the Oceana letter urging Congress to sign the SAFE Seafood Act.

This bill is designed to protect seafood consumers, honest seafood businesses, and the oceans from the negative environmental and financial impacts of seafood fraud.

We join Oceana in urging lawmakers to enact it as soon as possible. Click here to access Oceana’s full report.

Oceana. Seafood Sticker Shock: Why you may be paying too much for your fish. August 7, 2013. Accessed at
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