When you order fish at your favorite South Florida restaurant or buy fillets from the supermarket, theres a chance you are not eating what you thought you bought. The marine conservation group Oceana recently tested 96 fish samples purchased from 60 outlets from West Palm Beach to Key Largo and found that nearly one-third of the seafood was mislabeled.
According to Oceanas report released Monday, the species most often misrepresented was red snapper, which usually turned out to be a less-expensive snapper species such as dog snapper or lane snapper, and even sea bream from the Pacific not a snapper at all in 86 percent of samples. Grouper, mislabeled 16 percent of the time, was substituted with king mackerel or Asian catfish in several samples.
The report says sushi sellers were the worst offenders, with 58 percent of samples mislabeled. Fish advertised as white tuna turned out to be escolar a snake mackerel containing a toxin that causes digestive distress in all the samples collected from 15 sushi venues in South Florida, Oceana said.
Grocery stores had the lowest numbers of wrongly labeled fish about 8 percent of samples collected. Restaurants were in the middle at 36 percent.
Oceana senior scientist Kimberly Warner, one of the reports co-authors, says seafood fraud has a negative impact on consumers wallets, health and the health of the worlds oceans.
Depressing, very troubling, Warner said last week in a telephone interview. This is not a local problem. We see it every place we look.
The good news for South Florida: seafood fraud is less rampant here than in Southern California where Oceana found more than half the fish samples it tested from grocery stores and restaurants were something other than what was advertised, and in the Boston area where up to 48 percent of seafood was mislabeled.
Warner said eating the wrong fish can cause health problems for consumers who are allergic. Theres also the potential for ciguatera a neurotoxin found in some large reef fish that can lead to chronic, long-lasting symptoms. In the case of king mackerel being substituted for grouper, theres the issue of mercury: the Food and Drug Administration says women of child-bearing age and children should not eat kingfish due to high levels of the heavy metal. Escolar, falsely called white tuna by some sellers, is the subject of FDA health warnings for its gastric effects.
Seafood fraud also hits consumers in the wallet, the report warns, when they pay for what they think is red snapper but is really tilapia a much-cheaper, farmed freshwater fish. Diners who thought they were eating wild or king salmon got farmed Atlantic salmon instead about 19 percent of the time.
Warner said Florida has put a lot of effort into ferreting out seafood fraud, but extra efforts in traceability is going to be the ultimate solution, she said. The U.S. imports more than 85 percent of its seafood, and Warner said the supply chain worldwide is very murkyits very hard to tell the path from when its caught to when it reaches your plate.
Mahmood Shivji, an expert in genetics who heads the Guy Harvey Research Institute at Nova Southeastern University Oceanographic Center in Dania Beach, has performed DNA testing on numerous seafood samples over the past few years. He reviewed the Oceana report but did not conduct any testing for it.