It is a criminal offense to mislabel a product simply to be able to sell it for more money. Besides just being unethical, it can also cause potential harm to the consumer. How widespread is the fish mislabeling across the US? The truth may shock and disturb you. It may also have you wondering what you are actually paying for when you buy fish at the grocery store or even when you grab some sushi for lunch.
Of over 1,200 samples taken from more than 600 different retailers, about one third said something different on the package from what DNA tests concluded about the species of the fish being sold. Generally, the type of fish in the package would have sold for less money than the type of fish it was being advertised as. The biggest culprits were red snapper and tuna. About seven eighths of the red snapper sampled was mislabel, and more that half of the tuna was as well. When red snapper was mislabeled the most common kinds of fish found in the packaging were rockfish and tilapia. The greater concern would be that tuna was often substituted with escolar. This is a fish with a strong laxative effect, and it is recommended that people consume no more than 6 ounces of this fish in a day. What may account for this?
Besides outright dirty business tactics, a conflict between state and federal laws may be coming into play. For example, California law makes it legal to label 13 different types of rockfish as red snapper. The FDA has a different feeling on the matter. If the label says red snapper, the fish better be red snapper. So some of the discrepancy may be the result of these conflicting laws. It also interesting to note that up until 1992, the FDA had banned escolar due to the fact that it can cause (spoiler alert – this is about to get graphic) oily and explosive diarrhea.
Unfortunately, we can't all DNA test our fish before eating it, so is there anything we can do? Ask a lot of questions at your grocer. If you ask if the fish was wild or farmed, where it was caught, and make other inquiries like these, your grocer is more likely to ask questions from their retailer. Shady retailers don't like a lot of questions. Trying to be an informed consumer may have a trickle down effect.