Data Max


From sea to sushi bar, a system open to abuse (Boston Globe)


Table of Contents

The ocean is a vast and mysterious place, home to a staggering diversity of marine life. For seafood lovers, this diversity is a tantalizing promise of delicious meals and culinary adventures. However, what you see on your plate may not be what you think it is. The rampant mislabeling of fish that consumers buy can be largely traced to this: the lack of anything like the regulations imposed on meat suppliers.

The Regulatory Gap in the Seafood Industry

While meat suppliers are subject to strict labeling regulations, seafood is governed by a patchwork of rules that vary from country to country and even from state to state. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for ensuring the safety of seafood, but it has limited resources to devote to monitoring mislabeling practices. Moreover, it lacks the authority to enforce the labeling regulations that do exist.

Why Fish Mislabeling Happens

Fish mislabeling can happen for a variety of reasons, but the most common cause is economic gain. Some unscrupulous seafood sellers may substitute cheaper or more abundant species for the more expensive or scarce ones, passing them off as the real thing. For example, a study by the nonprofit group Oceana found that nearly 60% of the tuna samples they tested in the US were mislabeled, often as a less expensive species like escolar.

Another reason for mislabeling is the complexity of the seafood supply chain. Fish are caught in one place, shipped to another, processed and packaged, and finally sold to consumers. Along the way, they may be subject to mislabeling or unintentional mix-ups.

The Impacts of Fish Mislabeling

The impacts of fish mislabeling are significant and far-reaching. From a health perspective, mislabeling can lead consumers to unknowingly consume species that may be contaminated with harmful chemicals or pathogens. It can also cause allergic reactions in people who are sensitive to certain types of fish.

From an environmental perspective, mislabeling can contribute to overfishing and the depletion of certain species. For example, if consumers are led to believe that a certain type of fish is more abundant than it really is, they may be more likely to buy it, putting pressure on the already threatened population. Mislabeling can also make it more difficult for consumers to make informed choices about sustainable seafood options.

How to Avoid Fish Mislabeling

While there is no foolproof way to avoid fish mislabeling, there are some steps that consumers can take to reduce their risk. One is to buy from reputable sources that have a transparent supply chain and can provide information about the species and origin of the fish. Another is to be aware of the common types of mislabeling and to be cautious when purchasing certain species.

Consumers can also educate themselves about sustainable seafood practices and support organizations that advocate for responsible fishing practices and labeling regulations. By making informed choices and raising awareness about the issue, we can work towards a more transparent and sustainable seafood industry.

The rampant mislabeling of fish that consumers buy can be largely traced to this: the lack of anything like the regulations imposed on meat suppliers.

This Boston Globe article explores how the fish appears on diners’ plates, it has undergone a Cinderella-like transformation: for instance, escolar, which can cause digestion problems, is presented as white tuna or albacore - more palatable and pricier fish.

Fish misidentification is especially common at sushi restaurants, partly because they use various names for the same fish. The confusion can be compounded by packaging labels written in other languages that are incorrectly translated into English.

A Globe investigation detailed yesterday found that mislabeling of certain fish is endemic in the Boston area. DNA testing showed that 32 area restaurants that serve sushi - including Takara Sushi in Newton, Basho Japanese Brasserie in Boston, and Kowloon in Saugus - sold misnamed fish. For instance, tilapia stood in for red snapper, and farmed hybrid bass was identified as wild striped bass.

The testing revealed that nearly half of the 183 fish samples collected at restaurants and supermarkets were not the species ordered.

Aaron Bernstein, MD, MPH

Aaron Bernstein is the Interim Director of The Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment, a pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital, and an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics.

Leave a Comment

Scroll to Top