The New York Attorney General’s office may take enforcement action against some supermarket chains after it found “rampant” seafood mislabeling at grocers across the state, according to a recent report.
The report, from New York Attorney General Barbara D. Underwood, found that around a quarter of the seafood sampled at New York grocery retailers was mislabeled. These findings are the result of the first major U.S. government investigation of seafood fraud at supermarket chains.
The incidence of mislabeling popular species was “rampant” among New York retailers, the Underwood's office said in statement. For example, 27.6 percent of species sold as “wild” salmon were mislabeled, oftentimes being substituted for farmed salmon.
A significant 67 percent of red snapper samples were mislabeled, the report found. Approximately 87.5 percent of lemon sole was also discovered to be mislabeled.
“The substitutes were often cheaper, less desirable, and less environmentally sustainable species," the AG office statement said. "This includes farm-raised salmon sold as wild salmon, lane snapper sold as red snapper, and swai sold as lemon sole."
Ray Hilborn, a professor of marine science at the University of Washington and a member of the International Fisheries Innovation Network steering committee, said the report showed the mislabeling was at times intentional and at times accidental.
“It would certainly seem that for salmon, [mislabeing] is intentional,"Hilborn told SeafoodSource. "For snapper and grouper, it would depend on whether another species of snapper and grouper were substituted. However, if it is farmed catfish or tilapia that is being substituted, that is almost certainly intentional."
However, similar to past Oceana studies, “a scientist would need to know what was tested to really be able to say how big a problem it is overall,” Hilborn said.
The problem seems to be with a few specific species, and “not a general problem throughout the fish marketplace,” Hilborn added.
“Of the species tested, only salmon is widely consumed,” he said.
Another university researcher, Demian Willette, who serves as assistant professor of biology at Loyola Marymount University and who is part of a collaborative project to reduce seafood fraud in Los Angeles, believes that a majority of seafood vendors have the “best intentions.”
“The majority of mislabeling cases are accidental, a consequence of the highly complex seafood sourcing supply chain,” Willette told SeafoodSource.
“There may be 'bad actors' out there gaming the system, but in my experiences, vendors are labeling their products according to the available information they receive and in accordance with sometimes conflicting local, state and federal labeling guidelines,” Willette said. “The example of six different species of seriola that all can only legally called 'amberjack' comes to mind.”
The report makes it clear that seafood fraud “isn’t just a fluke; it’s rampant across New York,” Underwood said in the statement.
“Supermarkets are the last line of defense before a phony fish ends up as family dinner, and they have a duty to do more. Yet our report makes clear that New Yorkers may too often be the victim of mislabeling,” she explained.
A small subset of supermarket brands – Food Bazaar, Foodtown, Stew Leonard’s, Uncle Giuseppe’s, and Western Beef – were responsible for a “vastly disproportionate share of suspected mislabeling,” the AG’s office said.
The AG sent the five retailers letters requesting information on their seafood quality control practices, and said they “could face financial penalties.”
Around two-thirds of the supermarket brands reviewed had at least one instance of suspected mislabeling.
While the mislabeling affected nearly all species tested, it was rampant among certain species. “The results suggest that consumers who buy lemon sole, red snapper, and grouper are more likely to receive an entirely different fish,” the AG’s office said. “Similarly, consumers who bought ‘wild' salmon often got the farm-raised seafood they had paid on average 34 percent more to avoid.”
From late 2017 through 2018, the attorney general’s office purchased seafood (based on availability) at 155 locations across 29 supermarket brands.
Investigators targeted seafood from nine categories, including red snapper, snapper (varieties other than red), grouper, cod, wild salmon (including chum, coho, sockeye, and king), halibut, lemon sole, sole (varieties other than lemon), striped bass, and white tuna. The AG’s office then sent the samples for DNA testing by the Ocean Genome Legacy Center, an academic laboratory at Northeastern University.
There are some limitations to the study, the AG’s office said.
“For example, because seafood selection and availability vary substantially, no two chains had the same variety and number samples collected. The results are therefore illustrative, but not representative,” it said.
The report warns consumers to be on alert for seafood pricing that seems too good to be true, “as it may signal problems,” the AG’s office said. “The report also encourages consumers to demand that their supermarkets provide precise labeling of the seafood they sell and describe their seafood quality and sustainability practices.”