Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Is that really tuna you're eating? The unfortunate reality of seafood fraud

The importance of consuming fish has become a fairly common part of nutritional advice. There are certainly a variety of well-known health benefits to eating fish, particularly cold-water fish that contain a strong omega-3 fatty acid profile. In my February Reading Roundup I linked to a major study just published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine that showed the benefits of eating a Mediterranean diet, which according to the study protocol, included a recommended three or more servings of fish (preferably fatty) a week.

But, before you go and buy just any piece of fish, make sure it's really what the label says it is.

A few weeks ago there was a new study released that generated quite a bit of buzz in the media; the focus - fraud in the seafood market. The study, conducted by a company called Oceana, used DNA analysis to answer the basic question: is the seafood we buy at the grocery store or sushi restaurant really the type of fish that's being marketed?

Over three years (2010 to 2012) Oceana staff and volunteers involved in the study purchased some 1,200 seafood samples from 675 retail outlets in major cities in 21 states in the United States. The specific retail outlets they looked at were restaurants, sushi venues, grocery stores and seafood markets, and used the well-known websites Zagat and Yelp to identify retail outlets. Those involved with the study focused particularly on a select group of fish species that had been found to be mislabeled in other studies or had some regional significance.

The genetic identify was found in 97 percent of all samples tested, which consisted of 46 different types of fish, with more than 80 percent consisting of various types of salmon, snapper, cod, tuna, sole, halibut and grouper.

Here's what they found.

Snapper was the most commonly mislabeled type of fish, followed by tuna and cod. Salmon, which was the most sampled type of fish, was also found to be correctly labeled the most. Also, seabass was never found to be correctly labeled, and yellowtail was only found correctly labeled three times (compared to mislabeled 24 times).

My wife and I love sushi, but this next graph certainly gave me reason to pause. Almost three-quarters of all fish sampled at sushi restaurants was found to be mislabeled! On a more positive note, the majority of fish samples were taken from fish in grocery stores, but they were also found to have the lowest percentage of mislabeled fish.

More than half of all fish sampled in Pennsylvania and southern California were found to be mislabeled. That's pretty staggering. Even more so, there were nine additional cities where 25% of fish samples were found to be mislabeled (even including my hometown of Washington, DC).

Salmon is a huge part of my diet (along with a lot of other people being one of the most commonly consumed fish in the U.S.), so I was particularly interested in this next graph looking specifically at mislabeled salmon. One specifies in particular to note is wild salmon, which was found to be mislabeled a number of times as Atlantic salmon. A similar mislabeling was found for king salmon.

What is the bottom line here? Is it that we should stay away from sushi restaurants or not eat as much fish? Don't count on me being one of those people. I think the real value of this study is to reinforce a point I continue to try and make through this blog: pay attention to where your food comes from and the quality of the food we eat really matters. I'll still continue to have the occasional sushi meal, but I certainly make sure I'm going to a reputable restaurant that I know sells a quality product. Ditto with the grocery store. 

So, I'll leave you with this...continue to ask questions and investigate where your food comes from. It matters. Because in the end, that piece of tuna you're eating, may not be tuna.

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