January 29, 2019
Is your seafood retailer telling—and selling you on—a “fish story”? In New York City according to State Attorney General Letitia James, if you are buying lemon sole, red snapper, or wild salmon, it is likely that’s not what you’re taking home.
Late last month the James’ office issued a report asserting that 43%t of the time, when premium-priced fish (fetching between $19 and $29 per pound) — like grouper, cod, halibut, striped bass, and white tuna —is purchased, inferior varieties farmed in foreign countries with very little or no regulatory oversight are substituted without the buyer’s knowledge.
“I’m very happy to see law enforcement getting involved says,” Larry Olmsted, author of “Real Food/Fake Food: Why You Don’t Know What You’re Eating and What You Can Do about It,” recently told Salon.
“Mislabeling is rampant in the seafood industry, and if you can’t reliably get the fish you want in a port city like New York, just imagine what levels of fraud are like further inland,” Olmstead said to Salon, adding, “This business has had a fraud problem for years and years—and the only people tracking it have been public interests groups,”
In the investigation leading up to the release of the new report . samples from 155 seafood retailers were purchased and tested. Farmed salmon samples were purposely mislabeled as “wild” 27% of the time. Sixty-seven percent of red snapper fillets were mislabeled; and virtually every piece of fish labeled as lemon sole (87%) was something entirely different and cheaper.
Across the board, substitutes were cheaper, less desirable, and less environmentally sustainable species. This, while the U.S. per capita consumption of seafood for 2017 has increased to 16 pounds from 14.9 pounds in 2016.
“For white-fleshed fish, supermarkets and grocery stores that are jerking their customers around usually sub-in Asian catfish varieties called swai, panga and basa,” Robert DeMasco, owner of Pierless Fish in Brooklyn, a seafood wholesaler with a client list including many of the country’s most celebrated restaurants, told Salon. .
These catfish varieties don’t even rate compared to the more well-known durable darling of American aquaculture, tilapia. “There’s no way of knowing how swai and the others are raised, what kind of antibiotics are used on them— though, you can bet whatever it is, there’s a ton of it being used. There’s no way of knowing what they get fed,” DeMasco told the news outlet.
“In Asia—Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam mostly—there’s very little regulation and you know what’s crazy? Ninety percent of the fish Americans eat is coming from foreign countries,” DeMasco revealed.
Compare that to the 18% of the total supply of vegetables that are imported, and the less than 30% of total beef eaten each year that is imported, and the challenge ahead for well-regulated domestic fishermen begins to take shape.
“For the most part, the fish Americans eat is already filleted,” says author Olmsted. “The majority of it is already prepared and served in restaurants and we all know that means battered and fried, so there’s not a lot of opportunity for consumer education and that’s what it is going to take to cut down on fish fraud.
“This is the same thing that happened with the organic movement,” Olmstead told Salon. “It can be done, it will just take time and the kind of oversight that’s being signaled from New York.”
“In the fish business there are words that sell fish. ‘Snapper’ is one of those words. Another word is ‘grouper.’ It is really hard to sell a fish that is not called snapper or grouper, so of course they’re the most ripped-off fish in the store, but people just aren’t interested in lieu de mer, or even pollack, really. Turbot? That’s a nice fish,” says Demasco. “Very hard to sell.”
“On menus people like descriptions. I think it’s the romance, the story in their head,” DeMasco continues. “‘Line-caught’ this, ‘day boat’ that.’ ‘Diver scallops’ is a big one. People love a diver in a wetsuit getting their scallop for them. There are some, sure. I know a lot of the guys. But how many menus in this city, this country have a ‘diver scallop’ on it? There aren’t that many divers. No. Scallops are dredged. ‘Dredged?’ Dredged is not a sexy word.”
One of the solutions is to know where your fish is coming from. “I’m a big fan of some of the branding efforts that are going on in aquaculture, it makes it easier to identify and patronize the good guys,” says Olmsted, adding, “There are good American outfits farming salmon, even shrimp. People want this stuff and companies know it.”
Research contact: @mannyhoward