Shop Notes

Combating seafood fraud

Posted: Nov. 4, 2015 | Tags: FDA, reporting, science, seafood trade

Blue icon of a fish.


Illustration by Lesia Olesnyckyj

One of the things we do at the Investigative Reporting Workshop is explore how different academic disciplines can enrich and inform investigative journalism. A talk this week on seafood fraud sponsored by AU’s interdisciplinary ECOllaborative provides a case in point.

Kimberly A. Warner, senior scientist for the ocean conservation group Oceana, described her organization’s efforts to combat widespread global seafood fraud. The United States imports 94 percent of its seafood. Oceana scientists have discovered that much of it is mislabeled. Thanks to advances in DNA testing over the last several years, scientists like Warner can more accurately discover what American consumers are really eating when they order fish.

Since 2010, the amount of fraud detected has skyrocketed. Oceana’s team ascertained that restaurant diners who order pricey red snapper are most likely being served a cheaper substitute like tilapia. Of 120 samples of what purported to be red snapper Oceana tested across the country, only seven were the real thing.

The problem is particularly bad in sushi restaurants. As much as 74 percent of the fish Oceana tested in these venues was mislabeled.

With occasional help from students in AU labs, Warner and her colleagues discovered that 84 percent of the “white tuna” they examined was actually escolar, nicknamed the “Ex-Lax fish” because of its unpleasant purgative properties. It is banned in several countries, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has issued warnings about its consumption. Analyzing a bag of frozen shrimp sold at the grocery store, Warner found it also contained an aquarium pet and several species not yet described by science. And those famous Maryland crab cakes? There’s a good chance the crab is not from anywhere near Maryland.

The global seafood trade has a long, complex and opaque supply chain that sometimes processes the same fish on several continents, exporting and re-importing it at various stages. Alaskan anglers may send their sustainably caught wild salmon to China for processing, but what is re-imported into the United States may have been illegally fished in Russia or it may be a farmed salmon substitute.

Weak rules govern the international seafood trade. There is little oversight, and illegal fishing is widespread, critically endangering some fish species.

Where does this leave us as consumers? How can we make informed choices about what we buy? Science helps us understand the problem, but other disciplines must pitch in to fashion the remedies. Oceana believes a combination of new regulatory efforts, consumer education and new laws are needed to combat the problem. The organization advocates creating a chain of traceability that can track a fish from boat to plate, creating transparency in what is currently a murky seafood supply chain.

Building a system that is workable and enforceable is a tall order. That’s one reason students from AU’s Kogod School of Business, School of International Service, as well as the science faculties, attended Dr. Warner’s talk. Solutions will require a collaborative, multidisciplinary effort.

Interestingly, some of Oceana’s biggest allies in this effort are celebrity chefs, restaurant owners, fishers and seafood distributors. Many feel their credibility is on the line, and are incensed that they’re not getting what they paid for. They see value in constructing a new, better system for purchasing seafood.

When asked by one audience member if American consumers care about any of this, Warner said she thought they did, for a very human, non-science reason. “Fundamentally,” she said, “people don’t like being cheated.”

Oceana's interactive map can be found here.

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