In 1992, Consumer Reports published an article titled, “The label said Snapper, the lab said baloney”. Fifteen years later, the mislabeling of red snapper is, if anything, more widespread. A 2004 study in Nature showed 75 percent of red snapper sold in the U.S. is some other fish.
Menus offer up red snapper despite that it has been overfished for the last half-century. Red snapper mysteriously existing in restaurants but not in the sea is resolved by mislabeling, which prevents us from perceiving red snapper is actually in trouble. It’s as if we are eating some ghost of bygone years, when fish were abundant and there was no need to call them anything but their proper names.
A 2006 investigation of eleven Florida restaurants selling grouper uncovered that six out of eleven groupers were phonies–often catfish. This investigation revealed a personal favorite case of renaming/mislabeling–plain old catfish called “Grouper teammate.” Only five of the eleven tested groupers were legit, including one bought at a Hooters franchise, which was particularly surprising since other features at Hooters are often fake.
At the core of the problem is that mislabeled seafood gives consumers the false sense that supply is keeping up with demand. Consumers are sold sablefish as ‘black cod’, groupers as ‘rock cod’ and pollock as just plain ‘cod’. The collapse of Atlantic cod might have gotten a lot of media, but to many consumers, cod stocks seem just fine.
Unfortunately, testing seafood to ensure it is properly labeled has become increasingly difficult as trade in seafood expands. We must worry not only about policing U.S.-caught fish but also foreign seafood distributors. In 1995, the U.S. imported 54% of its seafood. Today, 83% of U.S. seafood is imported from an estimated 13,000 foreign suppliers in 160 different nations. And while the European Union tests 20-50% of its imports in any year, the U.S. tested less than one percent of seafood imports in 2006.
A seafood labeling system is needed that can track fish from aqua-cradle to plate. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), which certifies and eco-labels seafood, implemented standards to follow fish through the supply chain. This chain of custody model could be used worldwide. Daniel Pauly and I discuss this idea in our review paper Trade Secrets: Renaming and Mislabeling of Seafood. This month, Conservation Magazine’s Douglas Fox covered the topic in a great article on Imposter Fish. Read more here.