Wednesday, June 1, 2011

A Fish Tale


Recently I had a craving for fish, thus went to Philadelphia’s leading gourmet food store. The farm raised salmon @ $24.99 per pound looked great. When I asked the individual behind the counter where the salmon came from, I received a puzzled look. Where does our fish come from?

Read On:

Fish facts:

  • The average American eats approximately 16 pounds of fish and shellfish per year.
  • 84 percent of seafood eaten in the U.S. is imported, only 2% is inspected.
Time to raise the red flag! Last week, Oceana, the international ocean advocacy group located in Washington D.C. released their new report “Bait and Switch: How Seafood Fraud Hurts Our Oceans, Our Wallets and Our Health.” Over the past four years, Oceana conducted DNA tests of 1,000 fish filets from dozens of U.S. cities and concluded that 50 percent of the samples from restaurants and grocery stores were mislabeled.

What are the economic incentives for seafood fraud? For starters it is a way to imitate a more expensive product to avoid tariffs on a particular species – you purchased Mahi Mahi, but you received Yellowtail. Other forms of labeling fraud is short weighing where excess breading, ice or salt water are added so you end up buying a smaller quantity of fish than labeled. According to the 2010 National Conference of Weights and Measures, 40 percent of the weight of many seafood products is actually ice and not fish. The real downside to seafood fraud is it opens the door for illegal species to enter the market. Remember, seafood is a high risk food that requires proper handling and refrigeration. The substitution of illegal species can lead to a broader range of unknown contaminants.

What is the solution? Currently, the FDA just began using a risk based, sequencing DNA bar coding computer system. However, they only screen 50 percent of seafood imports. What about the other 50 percent? To me it sounds like we should get UPS involved in our fish supply chain. They could set up a fish tracking database that tracks down every piece of fish like a UPS package from its source of origin.

So now back to my fish tale. I decided to pass on the salmon, returned to my neighborhood and bought a nice slice of swordfish at my local market @ $9.99 per pound – wild caught, never frozen, imported from Panama. Or was it Mako Shark? Damn, I will never know.


  1. 50%! So knowing your fish farmer is even more important than knowing your vegetable farmer!

  2. Jimmy,

    An explosive topic here in NE, where the Govt. is seen as driving fishermen out of business, while letting ships from other nations fish in international waters.

    When local fishermen are able to fish, you generally know where it comes from. The local Whole Foods often labels the boat and harbor. Most staff at Legal Seafoods know the origin of the fish.

    This doesn't speak to the fraud aspect, which I suspect has been happening for many years.

    Good post

  3. I won't asume that all your readers have seen the article in this SUnday's NYTimes about this exact subject:

    Your story about the fish counter confuses me...most fishmongers are expert in all aspects of the products they sell. Certainly at the Whole Foods I go to they are. Not a good sign.

    I do agree, however, that truth in labeling needs to be addressed for the long term. There are a number of alternate species of fish that are very good on their own...they don't need to be falsely labeled "red snapper" just to sell them (altho to sell them at $20/lb instead of $10, they do).

  4. The retail channel uses RFID tags to track merchandise through the supply chain. That could solve the problem if operators cared. If they are getting a deal and the consumer doesn't know, the sneaky ones will continue. This would have to become a big issue to some consumer watch group to make a company invest in such measures. Don't you think?

  5. I wonder what the marketers and the lobbyist for the associations and companies that import and sell seafood are thinking?  Their business is at risk.  All they need is one incident where a mislabeled product causes sickness or deaths, and their industry will tank for a while.  It's like the problem with lead in toys a few years ago.  Self regulation by the industry didn't work. Here is another instance of over dependence on government inspection and regulation to catch problems.  And ironically, the idiots who are drinking tea and harping on Fox news are calling for less regulation and smaller government.  So who will do the work of protecting consumers?  I guess the consumer ultimately has to protect the consumer by not buying seafood products until the industry cleans up it's act.

  6. Thank you all for your comments. No fishmongers here in Philadelphia and yes seafood supply chain definitely needs to get its act together. Fish farms too!