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Food, Health, and Eco-news
Seafood is Too Often Mislabeled
How can you be sure you’re getting what the label promises? Know your vendor. 02/01/2021 by Temma Ehrenfeld

We judge food by how it looks and by the label. Unlike a Red Delicious apple or a Russet potato, seafood is generally sold filleted, canned, inside opaque bags, or otherwise altered or obscured. That means you often can’t see what you’re getting and must trust the label.

But the label could be wrong. According to a new analysis in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), from 190,000 to 250,000 tons of seafood sold in the United States each year is mislabeled (Kroetz et al., 2020). For example, you can buy a product labeled “Pacific salmon” and end up eating farmed Atlantic salmon instead.

Seafood has “complex and opaque supply chains that enable product mislabeling globally,” the authors wrote. So it’s possible – and common, unfortunately - to swap in a similar lower-value species at many points in these supply chains, and buyers don’t know the difference.

The team, which includes professionals from two U.S. nonprofits, Advanced Conservation Strategies and Resources for the Future, noted that much of the mislabeled seafood sold to Americans is imported from countries with less demanding regulations than the United States.

Along with fibs about the animal’s species, about 60 percent of it is farm-raised masquerading as wild-caught (Kroetz et al., 2020).

What shrimp are you getting?

Take shrimp, the most popular seafood in the United States. It comes from around the world, and some 20 species are sold, each possibly farmed in more than one way. The most common is technically known as “whiteleg shrimp.

Stay with me, your shrimp purchase is complex!

The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program, which analyzes which products are the lowest in mercury and other contaminants and most environmentally friendly, rates this category of shrimp as a “Best Choice” if it comes from U.S. ponds (Seafood Watch, 2021). However, you should avoid it from ponds in many countries or if the shrimp is caught by dragging heavy nets across the ocean floor. “Bottom trawling” picks up other species, damaging the eco-system.

How do you know where your shrimp came from and how it was caught? That’s one problem. You also should avoid giant tiger prawns from ponds in Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Bangladesh. And when you buy your shrimp, the two species may be in one package.

Plus, if you want giant tiger prawns exclusively, Seafood Watch rates them as a “Best Choice” only if farmed in appropriately-managed indoor recirculating tanks.

In 2014, the environmental group Oceana did its own analysis of shrimp labels in the United States and declared that more than 40 percent of the 41 grocery stores and markets it checked were selling misrepresented shrimp. About a third of all the products tested were mislabeled. The most common switch-up was labeling farmed shrimp from abroad as “wild” shrimp or “Gulf” shrimp (Warner et al., 2014).

But isn’t it okay if you buy local, near the sea?

Maybe. Another 2020 study concluded that farmed, frozen and imported shrimp had been labeled local, fresh, and wild-caught in North Carolina. The study used standard genetic testing to determine the species of 106 shrimp sold as “local” by 60 vendors across the state. Thirty-four percent of the purchased shrimp was mislabeled—in both coastal and inland counties. One-third of product incorrectly marketed as “local” was in fact that ubiquitous whiteleg shrimp, which is not even found in North Carolina waters (Korzik et al., 2020)

Am I okay if I avoid shrimp?

Alas, no. The PNAS study reported seeing these substitutions: Atlantic salmon labeled ‘wild’ Pacific salmon, blue swimming crab labeled blue crab, saithe labeled cod, rainbow trout labeled Atlantic salmon, Atlantic cod labeled Pacific cod, escolar labeled tuna, bigeye tuna labeled yellowfin tuna, haddock labeled cod and striped catfish called tilapia.  (Kroetz et al.,2020).

Escolar, sometimes called the ‘Ex-Lax Fish,” contains a type of fat that can cause gastric distress. Italy and Japan banned escolar, but it keeps showing up in U.S. sushi bars described as “white tuna.” (Embiricos, 2016).

Are you really eating catfish?

Striped catfish, also called pangasius, is a cheap, mild boneless fish swapped in as a substitute for 12 different products, though most often for tilapia (Kroetz et al., 2020). Panga, originally from the Mekong River in Vietnam, is now produced in deep ponds in that country, in what Seafood Watch says has been described as “the most intensive food production system on earth,” and generating large volumes of liquid waste. The fish has low protein and omega-3 levels and a relatively high concentration of mercury (Rodriguez et al.,2018). Other names on labels include Sutchi Catfish, Striped Pangasius, Swai, Tra, and Basa.

So here’s what to do.

That’s all rather daunting news! But there is good news as well.

Among the nations of the world, the United States has done a good job of regulating American fishing, the PNAS study's lead author Kailin Kroetz, an assistant professor at Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability, said in a press release (Futurity, 2020).

Referring to American regulators, Kroetz said “We assess the stock so we know what’s out there. We set a catch limit. We have strong monitoring and enforcement capabilities to support fishers adhering to the limit. But many countries we import from do not have the same management capacity.”

So if you really want to know what you’re eating, you would do best with certified fish. Seafood Watch lists a handful of certifications for each species. The Marine Stewardship Council, which certifies many Vital Choice products, requires every distributor, processor, and retailer trading certified seafood to have a documented trace-back to the time the seafood was handled, known officially as a chain of custody.

Such procedures make mislabeling dramatically less likely. In a 2019 study, the Council and research collaborators used genetic testing to validate the species identity of 1402 MSC certified seafood products derived from 27 species across 18 countries. It found under one percent was mislabeled (Barendse et al., 2019).

Fighting mislabeling has long been a passion of Vital Choice founder Randy Hartnell, who early in the company’s history uncovered seafood fraud while showing Andrew Weil, M.D., around Manhattan’s famed Fulton Fish Market. Randy alerted The New York Times’ famed food writer Marion Burros to his discovery – that inspired the paper’s subsequent expose on mislabeled fish.

The problem is still with us, but at least there are vendors you can trust, and Vital Choice works hard daily to earn and retain that trust.  

Sources: Accessed January 4, 2021.

These two kinds of seafood are most often mislabeled. Futurity. Published December 29, 2020.

Jaco Barendse J, Roel A, Longo C,  Andriessen L, et al., DNA barcoding validates species labelling of certified seafood. Current Biology. Published March 18, 2019.

Embiricos G. What Is White Tuna And Is It Safe To Eat? Food Republic. Published August 2, 2016.

Korzik ML, Austin HM, Cooper B, et al. Marketplace shrimp mislabeling in North Carolina. PLOS ONE. Published March 12, 2020.

Kroetz K, Luque GM, Gephart JA, et al. Consequences of seafood mislabeling for marine populations and fisheries management. PNAS. Published December 1, 2020.

Rodríguez M, Gutiérrez ÁJ, Rodríguez N, et al. Assessment of mercury content in Panga (Pangasius hypophthalmus). Chemosphere. Published April, 2018.

Warner K, Hirshfield M, Savitz J, Disla C, Lowell B, Golden R. Shrimp: Oceana Reveals Misrepresentation of America's Favorite Seafood. Oceana. Published October 1, 2014.


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