As a company founded by former fishermen – who plied northwest and Alaskan waters for a combined 50 years – we're super-familiar with regional seafood … and fraud in the fish market.
In fact, when founder Randy Hartnell accompanied Andrew Weil, M.D., around New York's Fulton Fish Market in 2004, he saw cheap farmed Atlantic salmon labeled and sold as costly wild king.
Randy alerted food reporter Marion Burros of The New York Times to a “wild” salmon fraud … which quickly led the Times to investigate (and confirm) his discovery.
In turn, that Times story appeared to prompt subsequent reports by Consumers Union and others: see “Buyer Beware”, “NY Times Calls Wild Salmon a Gamble for Consumers,” and “Salmon Fraud Persists.”)
Then in 2008, two teen girls did an investigation using DNA tests, whose results embarrassed U.S. regulators and led to major headlines: see “Teenage Detectives Reveal Fish Fraud.”
Thanks to a network created during decades of fishing northwest and Alaskan waters, we know exactly where all of our regional seafood comes from and how it gets to us.
For example, our tuna comes from our nearby neighbor Paul Hill, while our Alaskan seafood comes either from folks we've known for many years or from 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 policy is rare among markets and restaurants.
Very few retailers and restaurants will spend the requisite time and money to ensure the provenance of their fish … and in many cases sellers deliberately mislabel seafood to boost profits.
New reports find growing seafood fraud
In 2009, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported finding serious flaws in federal agencies' detection of seafood fraud … which can occur at any point from the boat or processor to the restaurant or seafood counter.
And on May 25 of this year, the advocacy group Oceana launched a new “Stop Seafood Fraud” campaign.
Oceana, which is famously fronted by actor Ted Danson, says it is “… the largest international organization working solely to protect the world's oceans”.
That effort is based on Oceana's new report, “Bait and Switch: How Seafood Fraud Hurts Our Oceans, Our Wallets and Our Health”.
The next day, The New York Times published an article about the fraud issue, which echoed Oceana's concerns, but points to a technological solution that the FDA appears poised to implement.
As the Oceana report says, recent studies indicate that popular fish – specifically, red snapper, wild salmon and Atlantic cod are mislabeled 25 to 70 percent of the time, to disguise their substitution with species that are less desirable, cheaper, or more available.
Oceana found that “… while 84 percent of the seafood eaten in the United States is imported, only two percent is currently inspected and less than 0.001 percent specifically for fraud.”
The Oceana report authors cite William Gergits, co-founder of a leading DNA testing lab, who said, “We've tested well over 1,000 fish fillet samples … [and] … about half the time the fish you are eating is not the species listed on the menu.” (Oceana 2011)
As Oceana says, “With about 1,700 different species of seafood from all over the world now available in the U.S., it is unrealistic to expect consumers to be able to independently and accurately determine what fish is really being served.”
The group's “Bait and Switch” report cites four ways that seafood fraud harms consumers and the oceans (Oceana 2011):
“Seafood fraud can directly threaten human health. Swapping one fish species for another that may be riddled with contaminants, toxins or allergens can make people sick.”
“Seafood fraud creates a market for illegal fishing by making it easy to launder illegally caught seafood products through the U.S. market. This undermines conservation efforts to prevent overfishing and accidental capture of at-risk species and hurts honest fishermen.”
“Mislabeling fish makes it difficult for consumers to make eco-friendly choices. Market-driven conservation efforts depend on the consumer's ability to make an informed purchase of particular species. This effort becomes nearly impossible when fish are mislabeled.”
“Seafood fraud misleads consumers about the true availability of seafood and the state of the marine environment. Because mislabeling maintains the appearance of a steady supply of popular fish species despite severe overfishing, the general public is unaware that the species is in serious trouble.”
Oceana calls for “implementing existing laws, increasing inspections, and improving coordination and information sharing among federal agencies.”
However, while laudable in intent, the organization's proposal for a mandatory “boat to plate” tracing scheme seems onerous … and probably unnecessary.
Instead, frequent, foolproof genetic tests by federal agencies would strike fear in fraudsters … and implementation of this approach appears imminent.
Gene testing seen as a key tool
As the Times articles pointed out, fraud detection can be tricky:
“… even the most experienced fishmongers are hard pressed to distinguish certain steaks or fillets without the benefit of scales or fins. And many arrive in supermarkets frozen and topped with an obscuring sauce.”
This explains why genetic testing seems the perfect solution … now that its cost has dropped dramatically.
According to the Times, gene testing can cost less than $1.00 per sample when done by a public or private lab that owns the equipment.
The Times reports that the FDA recently purchased gene sequencing equipment for five of its field laboratories and expects to use it routinely by the end of this year.
Their article also included an encouraging comment by Dr. Paul Hebert of the International Barcode of Life: an ongoing project that's so far captured the genetic profiles of more than 100,000 creatures, including some 8,000 varieties of fish.
As Hebert told the Times, “This new type of scrutiny could allow hundreds of thousands of samples to be tested each year, rather than the hundreds that are now rigorously analyzed.” (Rosenthal E 2011)
There are four key steps in DNA barcode analysis – DNA extraction, amplification of the genes by PCR, gene sequencing, and comparing the result to the seafood DNA reference library.
Experts predict that within five years, there will be desktop devices that execute all required steps in DNA barcode analysis … and hand-held DNA analyzers within a decade.
Oceana. Bait and Switch: How Seafood Fraud Hurts Our Oceans, Our Wallets and Our Health. May 25, 2011. Accessed at http://na.oceana.org/sites/default/files/reports/SeafoodFraudReport_2011.pdf
Oceana. Oceana Launches New Campaign in U.S. to Stop Seafood Fraud: New Report Describes How Seafood Fraud Hurts Our Oceans, Wallets and Health. May 25, 2011.
Accessed at http://na.oceana.org/en/news-media/press-center/press-releases/oceana-launches-new-campaign-in-us-to-stop-seafood-fraud
Oceana. Seafood Fraud: Overview. Accessed at http://na.oceana.org/en/our-work/promote-responsible-fishing/seafood-fraud/overview
Rosenthal E. The New York Times (NYT). Tests Reveal Mislabeling of Fish. May 26, 2011
Accessed at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/27/science/earth/27fish.html