Is that grouper you have there on your plate or pangasius -- a mild-flavored white-flesh fish farmed in Asia? The next time you're out to dine in South Florida, it may be a question you should ask yourself.
According to a new report released by Oceana, an international advocacy group for protecting the world's oceans, up to 31 percent of all seafood sold in Broward and Palm Beach counties is mislabeled. In other words, it's not what you're paying for -- it's seafood fraud.
Launched in May 2011, Oceana's "Stop Seafood Fraud" campaign has since found that while 84 percent of the seafood eaten in the U.S. is imported, only 2 percent is inspected. Furthermore, recent studies in cities like Boston and Los Angeles are suggesting that seafood may be mislabeled as often as 70 percent of the time for fish like red snapper, wild salmon, and Atlantic cod.
That's an important fact for us South Floridians to consider, especially because we eat twice as much seafood as the average American -- and most of it species that are continually found mislabeled.
So what exactly is seafood fraud? It can be anything from packaging fish with too much ice to increase the weight to mislabeling fish for sale and even falsifying documents. That means the next time you go out to buy fish or eat at a restaurant, the $15-per-pound wild salmon you're about to enjoy could really be nothing more than $5-per-pound farmed fish.
It's not just your wallet that's being hurt. Although it's disheartening to discover you're paying more for cheap fish that can be harmful to your health, it's ultimately the threat posed to our oceans, and the sustainability of important species, that triggers a greater concern.
According to Kim Warner, Oceana senior scientist and lead author of the study targeting South Florida, Florida has a long history of uncovering and addressing seafood fraud and is known for routinely testing seafood from restaurants for "misrepresentation." Since 2006, the state has issued more than 1,400 citations. Given this heightened awareness of seafood fraud in Florida, Oceana was curious if a current investigation would reveal lower seafood fraud when compared to high-rate areas like Boston and Southern California.
"We knew Florida has done a lot of its own seafood testing for quite a long time, and we wondered if given all this policing that's done on this issue, would we be able to find any fraud at all," said Warner.
Warner declined to discuss individual restaurants and stores where the fraud allegedly occurred but said she was "shocked" to find seafood fraud levels at 31 percent despite Florida's active response by state officials to combat it over the past 30 years. A total of 16 restaurants, 15 sushi restaurants, and 29 grocery stores -- including those that were Zagat-rated and Yelp-recommended for seafood -- were used in the testing, from Lake Worth to Key West. Of the 96 samples tested from 60 South Florida retailers, Oceana found that sushi restaurants had the highest rates of mislabeled samples (58 percent), and all white tuna samples were found to be escolar, a species that can make people sick.
Consumers buying wild or "king" salmon were getting farmed Atlantic salmon, while some establishments had sablefish mislabeled as black cod. Red snapper was mislabeled 86 percent of the time and even replaced with tilapia. The most disturbing swap: King mackerel -- a high-mercury fish with a strict health warning for certain people -- was being sold as grouper.
"This is happening for a variety of reasons," said Warner. "Our seafood is following an increasingly complex path from boat to [plate]. Certainly, money is a big motivator -- especially if you can get away with it. But it's [not just a distributor or a restaurant], it's the seafood supply chain as a whole. Without a good traceability system, there's no way of really telling where it's starting. This is not just a local problem; this is nationwide."
Luckily, there's something you can do about it: Be a more responsible eater.
"I think people need to care if [the fish they buy and eat] is honestly labeled, be it at their grocery store or favorite restaurant," said Warner. "If the prices are too good to be true, you may be receiving something fraudulent, and you can do something about it."
Consumers and restaurateurs can also choose to purchase fish from My Gulf Wild or keep an eye out for the state's "Fresh From Florida" logo to be sure they are eating fish that has been traced. If you suspect the mislabeling of seafood at a Florida restaurant, report it to the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation by calling 850-487-1395 or online at myfloridalicense.com. If you suspect mislabeling of seafood at a grocery store, report it to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Division of Food Safety by calling 850-245-5520.
Lastly, you can write to your local senator to ensure that the state and government agencies addressing seafood fraud have the full resources they need to combat these problems.
"Our number-one concern is the traceability," said Warner, who wants state and federal governments to be more responsible for the fish sold in the U.S. and suggests a system that would track information like when, where, and how fish is caught and sold. "It's why we're still seeing persistent seafood fraud in a state that's known for its commitment to combating such issues."
To learn more, visit oceana.org/fraud.