Why Your Tuna Dinner Might Not Contain Any Tuna

In 2015, average per capita consumption of seafood in America was 15.5 pounds. In fact, the United States is the second largest seafood consuming country in the world (China is number one).

Unfortunately, a report by Consumer’s Report found that many types of fish procured at retail stores and restaurants in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut was mislabeled as different species of fish, incompletely labeled, or misidentified by employees. In fact, only 4 of 14 species were correctly identified! Ten of 10 Lemon Soles and 12 of 22 Red Snappers were not what they were purported to be, and none of them could be decisively determined to be Red Snapper. Scarily, one fish labeled as Grouper was actually Tilefish, which contains three times more mercury than Grouper and should be wholly avoided by pregnant women. Atlantic Salmon are overfished, and sadly, eight samples of fish proclaimed to be Pacific salmon (which is not in danger of being overfished), were actually Atlantic salmon. Three of 21 catfish were actually Sutchi catfish, which is most often imported from Vietnam where some fish farmers employ drugs that are not authorized in the United States. At a Wegman’s in New Jersey, a fish labeled as King Salmon and sold for $17.99 a pound was actually found to be Coho, while Coho was sold for $14.99 per pound. When it came to tuna, one of ten Yellowfin tunas were actually Bigeye, and four Ahi tuna were actually Yellowfin.

In 2013, Oceana released a report on national seafood fraud. A shocking one-third of fish was found to be mislabeled. The researchers did DNA testing on 1,215 samples from 674 retail outlets in 21 states between 2010 and 2012. Southern California fared especially poorly in this study, where 52% of the fish sampled was mislabeled. Again, Red Snapper and Tuna were the most likely to be mislabeled, with 59% of Tuna being mislabeled (67 samples were mislabeled, and 47 were correctly labeled) and 85% of Red Snapper was found to be fraudulent (161 samples were mislabeled, and 25 were successfully identified). Salmon fared the best with 28 samples being mislabeled and 356 samples correctly labeled. Sushi restaurants were pinpointed as the most significant culprits, with 74% of the fish served at these establishments being incorrectly labeled (by comparison, 38% of the fish at non-sushi restaurants and 18% of the fish at grocery stores were mislabeled). Interestingly, 84% of the “white tuna” on menus were actually escolar, which causes digestive problems in many people.

When fish are relocated to larger ships, they are often blended together. Fish is also often processed at sea, which makes distinguishing species from one another problematic. Also, fish is often prepared with breading or sauces, which definitely makes identification more difficult. Sometimes, though, the mislabeling occurs due to the fisherman who is trying to hide illegally caught fish. FDA inspectors have been trained to identify and document any proof of fraud and will detain seafood that is believed to be mislabeled. However, 86% of fish eaten in America is imported, and only 2% of imported fish was physically examined by the FDA between 2003 and 2008. Only 0.05% of these fish were inspected concerning fraud, which includes mislabeling, substitutions, or short weighted fish. The National Marine and Fish Services, as well as the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection also help to detect and prevent mislabeling. The FDA has acquired DNA sequencing equipment in recent years, but fish consumption has reached an all-time high, and yes, more staff and equipment would be necessary to keep up with the growth.

What can you do? A good first step is to inquire about where and how the fish that you’re buying was caught. You can also advocate for more DNA testing and better traceability, as well as stronger federal and state enforcement of existing laws combating fraud.