August 24, 2016 — These days, choosing fish isn’t easy, whether you’re buying it at the grocery store or ordering it at a restaurant. You want to select seafood that’s fresh, reasonably priced, high in omega-3 fatty acids and low in mercury. After all, fish is one of the healthiest foods on the planet – it’s a lean source of protein that’s good for your heart and mind, experts note – which is why the updated U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Dietary Guidelines encourage Americans to eat fish or seafood at least twice a week. It’s a tricky balancing act, though, because at the same time, consumers are frequently warned about the potential risks of contaminants like mercury, which tends to build up especially in large predatory fish.
Here’s a shopping shocker that makes the issue even more complicated: You may not be getting the fish you’re paying for at retail outlets or in restaurants. In an investigation from 2010 to 2012, Oceana, an international organization dedicated to ocean conservation, examined more than 1,200 fish samples from 64 restaurants, sushi venues and stores in 21 states throughout the U.S. and found that mislabeling occurred in 59 percent of the 46 fish types that were tested; in particular, less desirable, less expensive or more readily available fish were often swapped for grouper, cod and snapper. Holy mackerel!
Among the most common examples of fish fraud the Oceana study found: Tilapia is frequently substituted for red snapper; pangasius (Asian catfish) is being sold as Alaskan or Pacific cod or grouper; Antarctic toothfish is being swapped for sea bass; farmed Atlantic salmon is standing in for wild, king and sockeye salmon; and escolar is being sold as white tuna, according to the report. In South Florida, king mackerel – a fish that’s on the Food and Drug Administration’s “do not eat” list for sensitive groups such as women of reproductive age and young children because it’s high in mercury – was being sold as grouper, and in New York City, tilefish – which is also on the “do not eat” list for sensitive people – was being sold as halibut and red snapper.
“It’s all based on economics,” notes Roger Clemens, a professor of pharmacology and pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Southern California and past president of the Institute of Food Technologists. “Many of the fish that are substituted are less expensive, so the restaurant or retailer profits from the deception.”