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Shrimp Fraud Is A Real Problem

At its most basic level, commerce works like this: The seller announces what they have to sell, and the buyer makes a decision based on that information. But what happens when the information isn't accurate at all? That's what's happening with our seafood.

Oceana, the largest international ocean conservation organization, collected 143 different shrimp products from 111 grocery stores throughout the country, and took them into the labs for a DNA test. They compared the results with the claims made on the labels, and found that 30 percent of shrimp being sold is misrepresented. To find out how bad this issue is, I spoke with Dr. Kimberly Warner, lead author of the study.

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How are shrimp being mislabeled?

Dr. Kimberly Warner: They were mislabeled as to what species were being sold with another species sold in its place. They were also misleading, advertising a shrimp product that was coming from a region known for wild-caught shrimp, but selling a farmed product in its place. And there was about 5% of what we call unusual findings of unknown or unidentified shrimp, which included things like the banded coral shrimp, a shrimp that's more often seen in the aquarium shrimp trade, along with species not previously identified.

What do you mean not previously identified?

Dr. Warner: In the U.S., the FDA regulates the seafood sold in interstate commerce. They have what they call a seafood list, which identifies over 1800 species of fish and shellfish potentially sold in the U.S. There's 48 different kinds of shrimp that are sold in the U.S., and we identified 20 that weren't included on any of these lists. So, the U.S. obviously didn't know they were being sold.

How does shrimp mislabeling compare to mislabeling of seafood in general?

Dr. Warner: Oceana released a report last year of over 1200 fish we collected from over 20 states, one of the largest investigations into fish mislabeling ever done. We found one-third of those were mislabeled, so it was in the same neighborhood of what we found with shrimp. And we're not the only ones who have done these investigations. We have identified over 100 studies around the globe. People have found seafood misrepresented at the point of sale on all continents, except Antarctica.

Where's the biggest failure of seafood misrepresentation occurring?

Dr. Warner: There is no full chain traceability for seafood sold in the U.S., and many other countries around the world. They've just started to implement this in the European Union, but it's not fully implemented yet. Right now, seafood is one of the most highly traded food commodities in the world. It goes through a very long, complex, nontransparent supply chain, and there are many opportunities for mislabeling, fraud, and substitutions to occur. What we are seeking is a full supply chain traceability for all seafood sold in the U.S.

What are the risks associated with seafood misrepresentation?

Dr. Warner: What we found, especially with our census testing, was that there were a number of health risks that occur when one seafood is substituted for another. For example, we found a lot of white tuna mislabeled in sushi restaurants. What was being sold was an oil fish called escolar. The FDA recommends you don't sell this fish in the U.S. because of severe abdominal cramping and other things. The FDA also found toxic pufferfish that was misbranded as an orange roughy for sale in Chicago. We're increasingly finding people allergic to some species but maybe not others, so without better labeling you have severe problems. There are also fish on the FDA's list of species to avoid if you're pregnant because of high mercury content being sold as low mercury species, so obviously you can't follow their advice. And we have problems with tracing back if there is food poisoning. It can be very troubling, and hard to investigate, if you don't know where your fish came from or what species it is. And illegally hot fish are laundered into this supply chain, and that harms ocean conservation because we're not putting those fish into our calculations of how many there are, how we can manage them. If you see on menus everywhere that red snapper is available -- that's, in fact, a very rare species -- it gives a false sense of what the true availability of what the market is.

What should consumers do about this?

Dr. Warner: We always say develop good relationships with the sellers. Ask questions about what you're buying. Look at the price to see if it's too good to be true. Some retailers are offering traceable seafood. In our neighborhoods in D.C., there's Wegmans and Whole Foods that are committing to traceable seafood. Some big retailers like Target have committed to offering traceable seafood next year. And we've gotten the support of over 500 chefs who want traceable seafood because they'd like to know what they're selling for sure. Slowly there have been voluntary efforts to addressing these problems. What Oceana wants is for all seafood sold in this country to be traceable, safe, legal, and honestly labeled, so it's not a crapshoot when you buy it.

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