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Teenage Detectives Reveal Fish Fraud
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DNA tests turn up frequent mislabeling of fish; Bait-and-switch findings echo a prior NY Times exposé prompted by a tip from Vital Choice

by Craig Weatherby

People often ask us how they can be sure about the fish they buy, and we always say, “know your source.”

Of course, that’s pretty hard to do when you’re dealing with restaurants and supermarkets.

Fish-Fraud: The Recent Record
You’ll find more coverage of seafood fraud and misrepresentation in these Vital Choices articles:

Some may simply want to boost thin profit margins, while others may be victims of fraud perpetrated by their wholesale suppliers.

Back in 2004, we tipped The New York Times to our discovery that some of the farmed Salmon sold at the Fulton wholesale market were deliberately mislabeled “Wild Salmon.”

(For more on that episode, see “Buyer Beware: Vital Choice Discovers 'Wild' Salmon Scam.”)

Some wholesalers take advantage of the distinct price difference between farmed and wild Salmonand non-experts’ difficulty telling wild Salmon from farmed fishto gouge inexpert, unsuspecting retailers and their (understandably) clueless customers.

Last week, The New York Times reported the results of DNA tests performed on fish obtained at four restaurants and 10 grocery stores in Manhattan.

The investigation was a science project by Kate Stoeckle and Louisa Strauss: two teenage Nancy Drews studying at the Trinity School in Manhattan.

Ms. Stoeckle’s father, Mark, is a scientist expert in “DNA bar coding”: a technique that simplifies the process of identifying species.

They sent 60 samples of seafood to the University of Guelph in Ontario, where graduate student Eugene Wong performed the genetic analysis.

As the Times reported, “Three hundred dollars’ worth of meals later, the young researchers had their data back from Guelph: 2 of the 4 restaurants and 6 of the 10 grocery stores had sold mislabeled fish.”

In fact, one in four of the testable fish samples were mislabeled.

The frauds included the following (Schwartz J 2008):

  • Cheap, farm-raised Mozambican tilapia sold as costly white tuna sushi.
  • Cheap smelt roe sold as costly flying fish roe sushi.
  • Cheap white fish—and endangered Acadian redfish—sold as rare, costly red snapper in supermarkets.

Indeed, red snapper is one of the most common targets of fraud, so depending upon the range of species tested, one would find a higher (or lower) rate of fraud.

The Times noted that Leonards’ Seafood and Prime Meats on Third Avenue was the one retailer whose products were labeled accurately.

The owner said he was not surprised, saying, “We go down and pick the fish out ourselves. We know what we’re doing” (Schwartz J 2008).

Perhaps they do. However, few supermarket fish buyers can distinguish among similar-looking species, and must rely on the integrity of the wholesaler… and the wholesaler’s supplier.

Don’t want to get fooled? Hire your own fishermen

Vital Choice co-founders Randy Hartnell and Dave Hamburg spent a combined 50 years as Alaskan Salmon fishermen.

The contacts and friendships they built during decades of fishing Alaskan waters allow them to skim the cream of the Salmon crop for our customers.

In truth, Vital Choice is your reliable guide and practical link to the world of wild Pacific seafood. We go where wild Salmonand all other wild seafood we sellis caught and processed.

And especially when it comes to wild Alaskan seafood, Randy and Dave know the people doing the work, personally, and having fished the waters year after year.

Randy relates this typical encounter with the retail world:

“We were recently in a large natural foods store in New England that was selling dark-skinned frozen Alaskan Coho steaks (Dark skin is synonymous with lower grade Salmon).

“Supermarkets are able to get away with this because most of the time their customers aren't knowledgeable enough to distinguish between good and not-so-good fish. Too many mistakenly believe that ‘Salmon is Salmon’ or ‘wild Salmon is wild Salmon.’

“More so than with any other animal protein, Salmon come in a vast range of quality grades, all of which are eventually sold to someone.”

So while we weren’t surprised by what the Manhattan teens discovered using DNA, we can offer you a sure solution to seafood deception: shop Vital Choice!


  • Schwartz J. Fish Tale Has DNA Hook: Students Find Bad Labels. The New York Times, August 22, 2008. Accessed online August 22, 2008 at The New York Times

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