- A recent study released by the New York Attorney General’s office reported high levels of seafood mislabeling and fraud at New York supermarkets. The 42-page report found that more than one in four samples wasn't sold under a federally recognized market name.
- The office spent the last year conducting the nation's first major government investigation to address fraud in the seafood industry. The office bought seafood at 155 locations across 29 supermarket brands, with fish from nine categories including snapper, grouper, cod, wild salmon, halibut, sole, striped bass and white tuna.
- The office sent the samples for testing to the Ocean Genome Legacy Center, a laboratory at Northeastern University. The DNA testing found widespread mislabeling of certain species, including 27.6% of samples sold as wild salmon, 67% of red snapper and 87.5% of lemon sole.
As the market for fish expands, so does the opportunity for fraud. The U.S. imported more seafood last year than any other year — more than 6 billion pounds — which makes up about 90% of the fish Americans eat annually. With that much fish being imported, the seafood industry is one of the most vulnerable to food fraud, according to a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations this year.
On a more local level, this report found that two-thirds of the state's supermarket chains tested had at least one instance of fish mislabeling. There were five chains — Food Bazaar, Foodtown, Stew Leonard’s, Uncle Giuseppe’s and Western Beef — that had more than half of their fish mislabeled. That could mean grocery stores across the U.S. likely face the same issue, and this report could spark more states to conduct their own investigations.
The substitutes for the labeled fish were typically cheaper and lower quality species, the report found. Suppliers can make more money off of mislabeled fish, but reports like this cause consumers to lose trust in the industry and supermarkets.
"It’s clear that seafood fraud isn't just a fluke — it’s rampant across New York," Attorney General Barbara Underwood said in a 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."
This is far from the first time the fish industry has faced accusations of fraud. In 2013, nonprofit ocean protection group Oceana took samples of fish nationwide and found that 59% of what was labeled tuna sold at restaurants and grocery stores was not. The same group conducted one of the biggest seafood fraud investigations from 2010 to 2012 and found that 33% of the samples analyzed were mislabeled based on U.S. Food and Drug Administration guidelines.
Legislation has tried to tackle the problem, but has faced obstacles. The Seafood Traceability Rule — a law that requires seafood importers of species like tuna, grouper and swordfish to track fish species and origin — was challenged in court, but upheld last year. And fisheries are now looking to adopt the first-ever traceability program. If implemented across the industry, that could help the issue.
But it's not just fish. Food fraud has been estimated to cost the industry $30 to 40 billion per year. From cheese and honey to seafood and spices, experts have said that the issue is widespread, but difficult to solve.
"Addressing food fraud takes a worldwide coordinated effort between industry, consumer groups and governmental agencies," Peter Bracher, managing director of food safety management for NSF International Asia-Pacific, told Food Dive last year.
As for fish fraud, this latest report from the New York Attorney General could encourage more retailers, suppliers and restaurants to be proactive in preventing it. The report says that solving the problem requires reform across the industry at different stages of the supply chain. A blockchain certification system recently launched to offer consumers a way to track fish's history, which could be one way to solve the problem. New technology and more methods could be coming soon as supermarkets and suppliers scramble in response to this report.