Fishy Bait and Switch

Vital Choice seafood is exactly what we say it is.

Why are we so very confident about the identity of our fish and shellfish?

Key Vital Choice people – founder/president Randy Hartnell, COO Dave Hamburg, shipping master Terry Hartnell, and lead buyer Rich Walsh – are former Alaska and Northwest fishermen who know our sources and supply chain intimately.

Last December, we reported on investigations by the Boston Globe and Oceana, which found routine fraud among seafood sellers (see “Fish Fraud Marches On”).

Oceana’s report found that 39 percent of seafood tested in the New York City area was mislabeled on store signs and restaurant menus.

Their report mirrored earlier reports by them and others, which found widespread seafood fraud in other major metropolitan areas.

Now, follow-up DNA tests by Oceana – a non-profit conservation group – confirm that fish fraud remains rampant in supermarkets, fish stores, sushi bars, and restaurants.

Oceana found mislabeling rates varied by region:

  • Southern California - 52 percent

  • Austin and Houston - 49 percent

  • Boston - 48 percent

  • New York City - 39 percent

  • Northern California and South Florida - 38 percent

  • Denver - 36 percent Kansas City - 35 percent

  • Chicago - 32 percent

  • Washington D.C. - 26 percent

  • Seattle - 18 percent

Their study targeted fish with regional significance as well as those found to be frequently mislabeled in previous studies, such as red snapper, cod, tuna, and wild salmon.

From 2010 to 2012, Oceana staff and supporters purchased 1,247 seafood samples from 674 retail outlets – restaurants, sushi bars, grocery stores and seafood markets – in major metropolitan areas in 21 states.

DNA testing found that one-third (33 percent) of the 1,215 samples analyzed nationwide were mislabeled, according to U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines.

Of the most commonly collected fish types, samples sold as snapper and tuna had the highest mislabeling rates (87 and 59 percent, respectively), with the majority of the samples identified by DNA analysis as something other than what was found on the label.

Halibut, grouper, cod and Chilean sea bass were also mislabeled between 19 and 38 percent of the time, while salmon was mislabeled seven percent of the time. (By the way, “Chilean sea bass” is the consumer-friendly name marketers applied to a once-obscure species called Patagonian toothfish.)

For more on salmon fraud, see “Salmon Scam Rampant in Restaurants” – which contains links to related Vital Choices reports – and “Salmon Buyer Beware: An Eye-Opening Trip to Manhattan’s Fish Market”.

A whopping 44 percent of all the retail outlets visited sold mislabeled fish. Restaurants, grocery stores and sushi venues all sold mislabeled fish, though the chances of being swindled varied greatly.

Oceana's study identified strong national trends in seafood mislabeling levels among retail outlets, with sushi venues ranking the highest (74 percent), followed by restaurants (38 percent) and grocery stores (18 percent).

The fish fraud found by Oceana also carries potentially serious concerns for the health of consumers, and for the health of our oceans and vulnerable fish populations:

  • Cheaper farmed fish sold as wild (e.g., tilapia sold as red snapper and farmed salmon sold as wild salmon)

  • Species carrying health advisories (e.g., high-mercury king mackerel sold as grouper and oily, stomach-upsetting escolar sold as albacore tuna)

  • Overfished, imperiled or vulnerable species sold as more sustainable catch (e.g. threatened Atlantic halibut sold as abundant Pacific halibut).

Oceana’s DNA tests also turned up exotic species not included among the more than 1,700 the U.S. government recognizes as sold or likely to be sold here.

Seafood fraud harms not only consumers’ pocket books, but also every honest vendor and fisherman.

To learn more, visit the Seafood Labeling & Fraud Issues> /shop/pc/articles.asp?cat=736< section of our news archive.

And to see Oceana’s lead investigator interviewed by Dr. Mehmet Oz, click these links:

  • Supermarket Food Fraud Part 1 (fish discussion starts at 2:20)

  • Supermarket Food Fraud Part 2

  • Supermarket Food Fraud Part 3


Oceana. Oceana Study Reveals Seafood Fraud Nationwide. February, 2013 Accessed at


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