New York probe finds rampant fraud, including farmed salmon sold as wild
Sadly, reports revealing a continuing seafood “con” keep cropping up.
We first wrote about the problem after Vital Choice founder and former Alaska fisherman Randy Hartnell visited New York’s Fulton Fish Market in 2004 with Andrew Weil, M.D.
Randy found that some wholesalers were labeling and selling farmed salmon as wild salmon — an experience he recounted in Salmon Buyer Beware: An Eye-Opening Trip to Manhattan's Fish Market.
He then contacted Marian Burros, then the lead food writer for The New York Times, which resulted in the investigation we covered in NY Times Calls Wild Salmon a Gamble for Consumers.
Since then, investigations by, among others, the advocacy group Oceana, have continued to find some supermarkets and restaurants selling cheaper species as fish for which people are used to paying a higher price — thereby boosting profit margins.
The Seafood Labeling & Fraud section of our news archive contains more than a dozen reports with Salmon Fraud Scandal being the most recent: a lengthy litany that signals the persistence and scope of the problem.
And a new report from New York's Attorney General confirms the ongoing nature of this profitable con.
New York AG finds rampant seafood fraud
The new report — titled Fishy Business — comes from New York's Office of the Attorney General (OAG), headed by AG Barbara Underwood.
The authors of the report set the stage: “Something fishy is going on at supermarket seafood counters. Consumers think they are buying lemon sole, red snapper, wild salmon, or any one of dozens of seafood options. But too often, they get something else entirely. It’s a bait-and-switch, which cheats consumers ...”.
As they said, “Seafood substitution and mislabeling is not a new phenomenon. Academics, nongovernmental organizations, and regulators throughout the world have identified high levels of seafood mislabeling at the wholesale and retail levels.”
Given the many prior investigations, why did they proceed with their own probe?
First, no previous study had investigated supermarket chains in New York State. And, as they wrote,” Nor has prior action by U.S. enforcement agencies and regulators surveyed potential seafood fraud at the retail level.”
So, New York’s OAG decided to launch the first major government investigation designed to target seafood fraud at supermarket chains, which lasted from late 2017 through 2018.
The AG’s office bought fish from several categories, including red snapper, snapper (varieties other than red), grouper, cod, wild salmon (including chum, coho, sockeye, and king), halibut, lemon sole, sole (varieties other than lemon), striped bass, and white (albacore) tuna.
They bought fish at 155 stores belonging to 29 supermarket chains, and then sent those samples to be DNA-tested at Northeastern University’s Ocean Genome Legacy Center.
And, as the report says, the results were disturbing:
- More than one in four (26.92%) of the DNA-identifiable purchases were mislabeled, with at least one violation found in about two-thirds of the supermarket chains reviewed.
- Consumers who bought what was advertised as “wild” salmon often received farmed salmon instead, and it typically cost about one-third more than salmon labeled as farmed. There was also rampant mislabeling of lemon sole, red snapper, and grouper.
- The substitutes were typically cheaper, less desirable species than the desired species.
- Five supermarket chains accounted for more than half of the mislabeling (Food Bazaar, Foodtown, Stew Leonard’s, Uncle Giuseppe’s, and Western Beef).
- Mislabeling was most widespread downstate. New York City had a staggering mislabeling rate of 42.65%, with notably high rates also occurring on Long Island and in Westchester and Rockland Counties.
Incompetence or intentional illegality?
It’s fair to ask how much of the mislabeling was intentional.
Supermarkets generally rely on the word of their wholesale suppliers, and many seafood counter workers aren’t expert enough to detect mislabeling, or they may be unable or unwilling to prevent it.
Renowned marine scientist Ray Hilborn, PhD, who’s based at the University of Washington, noted that the AG’s report said mislabeling sometimes appeared accidental.
However, salmon is much more commonly consumed than the other mislabeled species in the report, and as Professor Hilborn told Seafood Source news, “It would certainly seem that for salmon, [mislabeling] is intentional.”
Hilborn said this about the mislabeling of other fish species: “For snapper and grouper, it would depend on whether another species of snapper and grouper were substituted. However, if it is farmed catfish or tilapia that is being substituted, that is almost certainly intentional.”
Why trust Vital Choice?
Thanks to decades of fishing northwest and Alaskan waters, we know our seafood very well.
During those decades, we built a network of superior suppliers, so we know where all of our seafood comes from ... and how it gets to us.
For example, Vital Choice North Pacific albacore tuna comes from nearby neighbor Paul Hill ... while our Alaskan seafood comes either from folks we've known for many years or from fishing co-ops and other suppliers we've visited and carefully vetted.
And when we decided to offer premium European sardines and mackerel, we went to Portugal to find our current partner … a venerable, family-run business renowned for integrity and superior quality.
Not surprisingly, our rigorous, highly personal and reliable purchasing practices remain rare among markets and restaurants.
Very few seafood sellers focus on ensuring the identity and source of their fish … and some sellers deliberately mislabel it to boost profits.
Office of the New York State Attorney General. Fishy Business: Seafood Fraud and Mislabeling in New Your State Supermarkets. Accessed at https://ag.ny.gov/sites/default/files/fishy_business.pdf