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It’s very likely your supermarket fish isn’t what you think it is

Raw salmon on ice.
Keith Dodrill/Unsplash
When “wild” salmon is a state of mind.
  • Zoë Schlanger
By Zoë Schlanger

Environment reporter

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Seafood mislabeling is “rampant” across New York, according to a study released by the state attorney general’s office on Friday (Dec. 14).

The attorney general’s office purchased fish from 155 stores across 29 supermarket brands throughout the state, and then sent them to a lab for testing. A remarkable number of the specimens—more than one in every four, or 27%—were not what the supermarkets said they were. Instead, they were often completely different, cheaper, and less sustainably raised species.

People who buy lemon sole, red snapper, and grouper in particular are more likely than not to receive an entirely different fish, according to the report.

  • 28% of “wild” salmon was actually farmed salmon, despite costing one-third more on average
  • 67% of “red snapper” was something else entirely—often lane snapper, a nutritionally similar but cheaper variety. The report notes the lane snapper also had higher mercury levels.
  • Nearly 88% of “lemon sole” was not, in fact, lemon sole. It was often swai, which is faster and cheaper to raise.

“It’s clear that seafood fraud isn’t just a fluke—it’s rampant across New York,” New York attorney general and apparent pun aficionado Barbara D. Underwood said in a statement.

Two-thirds of the supermarket chains the attorney general’s office purchased from had at least one instance of fish mislabeling. Five chains in particular—Food Bazaar, Foodtown, Stew Leonard’s, Uncle Giuseppe’s, and Western Beef—had mislabeling that “exceeded 50%.”

Within the state, New York City had the worst false-label problem; 43% of the fish sampled from NYC supermarkets was not what it was labeled as. (Runners up were Long Island, with a 41% fish mislabeling rate, and Westchester and Rockland counties, with a 32% mislabeling rate.)

“We’re taking enforcement action, and consumers should be alert and demand that their supermarket put customers first by taking serious steps to ensure quality control at their seafood counters,” Underwood said.

Fish fraud is not restricted to New York. Little oversight and regulation has led to fish fraud nationwide. In 2013, Oceana, a nonprofit ocean protection group, took 1,215 samples of fish from across the US and genetically tested them. It found that 59% of the fish labeled “tuna” sold at restaurants and grocery stores in the US is not actually tuna.

In the case of that study, it was sushi restaurants that were most likely to mislabel the fish, trumping supermarkets in instances of fish falsehoods. In Chicago, Austin, New York, and Washington DC, every single sushi restaurant the group sampled was selling mislabeled tuna.

White tuna was also overwhelmingly mislabeled: 84% of “white tuna” was actually escolar, a fish that can cause gastrointestinal problems.

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