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Do You Eat Seafood? You May Be a Victim of 'Fish Fraud'

Fish fraud is a huge problem in the United States and around the world, and it can take a lot of forms. Here's how to make sure you don't become a victim.


It’s the old bait and switch.

You ordered Chilean Seabass, but what you really ate was Antarctic toothfish.

Instead of snapper, you got widow rockfish.

Your white tuna was swapped out for escolar.

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Photo: Flickr/Derek Keats

Fish fraud is a huge problem in the United States and around the world. Anything that misrepresents the fish you buy is considered fish fraud, including false documentation, mislabeling, and even plumping up packaging with more ice than fish. But one of the most common forms of fish fraud is substituting one species for another.

Between 2010 and 2012, Oceana tested 1,200 samples across the US and found that 18 percent of fish in grocery stores, 38 percent in restaurants, and a massive 74 percent (!!!) in sushi joints were mislabeled.  Snapper was the most mislabeled at 87 percent, being secretly swapped out for the not-so-fancy fish like gilthead seabream, madai, tilapia, pacific ocean perch and widow rockfish.

Here’s how to avoid fish fraud:

Eat Farm-to-Table or Boat-to-Throat

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Like supply chains across every industry, a seafood supply chain can be complicated. Your fish can pass through almost a dozen hands before it gets to you, and fish fraud can occur at any step of the way. Simply put, the fewer fingers there are touching your fish, the less chance of fraud.

Buying direct from the person who caught it at the wharf or at a seafood market is always best, but not always possible. Instead, hit up restaurants or grocery stores who pride themselves on supply chain transparency or who consider themselves farm-to-table, meaning they deal directly with the farmer or fishermen.

If the farm-to-table concept is limited in your area, start asking chefs and supermarket staff about the origins of the seafood they are selling. This will let them know their customers care about where they fish comes from.

Bring Home the Whole Fish

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Seafood that has been sliced and diced before you get a hold of it is easier to mislabel than a whole fish, according to the Oceana study. For example, you can easily tell the difference between a red snapper (hint: it’s red) and a tilapia (not red) when the two fish are whole.

Canned Equals Classy

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Surprisingly, canned fish passes through fewer hands than fresh fish, meaning less chance of fish fraud. Also, early research into the mislabeling of canned tuna has yet to uncover the same levels of fraud found in Oceana's look into fresh fish, according to Dirk Steinke, from the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario at the University of Guelph.

If the Price is too Good to be True...

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… then something is probably a little fishy. Steer clear of good deals because it can be a telltale sign that what you want has been switched out for something cheaper.

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