Fish Fraud: Is the Fish You’re Eating the Fish You Think it Is?

Monday Oct 21 | BY |
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Fish Fraud

A recent study found that about a third of the fish we eat isn’t what we think it is.

A February 2013 study by Oceana, the largest international advocacy group working solely to protect the world’s ocean, reported that seafood fraud is widespread across the U.S. Independent DNA testing confirmed that a whopping one-third of the fish sampled were mislabeled.

One of the main concerns of the study: fish on the FDA’s “do not eat” list for sensitive groups like pregnant women were sold to customers who had ordered safer fish.

How can you tell if what you’re eating is what you think you’re eating?

More About the Study

To get the results they did, the researchers at Oceana tested 1,215 fish samples collected from 674 outlets in 21 states between 2010 and 2012. It was one of the largest seafood fraud investigations in the world to date. Results showed the following:

  • One-third, or 33 percent, of the samples were mislabeled according to U.S. FDA guidelines.
  • Mislabeling was found in 27 of the 46 fish types tested (59 percent).
  • Only seven of the 120 red snapper samples were actually red snapper.
  • Between one-fifth to more than one-third of the halibut, grouper, cod, and Chilean sea bass samples were mislabeled.
  • A total of 84 percent of the white tuna samples were actually escolar—a species that can cause serious digestive issues for some sensitive people.
  • Cheaper farmed fish were substituted for more wild fish. Examples include pangasius sold as grouper, sole, and cod; tilapia sold as red snapper; and Atlantic farmed salmon sold as wild or king salmon.
  • Overfished and vulnerable species were substituted for more sustainable catch. Examples include Atlantic halibut sold as Pacific halibut, and speckled hind sold as red grouper.

The state breakdown of mislabeling rates showed:

  • 52 percent in Southern California
  • 49 percent in Austin and Houston
  • 48 percent in Boston
  • 39 percent in New York City
  • 38 percent in Northern California and South Florida
  • 36 percent in Denver
  • 35 percent in Kansas City
  • 32 percent in Chicago
  • 26 percent in Washington, D.C.
  • 21 percent in Portland
  • 18 percent in Seattle

Outlet breakdown showed:

  • 44 percent of all retail outlets sold mislabeled fish
  • 74 percent of sushi venues had the worst level of mislabeling—the worst level of all retail outlets
  • 38 percent of other restaurants sold mislabeled fish
  • 18 percent of grocery stores sold mislabeled fish

Other results showed that of the most commonly collected types of fish, snapper and tuna had the highest mislabeling rates across the county at 87 and 59 percent, respectively.

Other Findings

In addition to these results, Oceana noted other findings, including the fact that today, more than 90 percent of the seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported. Less than one percent is inspected by the government specifically for fraud.

Because our fish often travels a long way to get to us, it becomes more and more difficult to determine where the fraud is occurring. It could be on the original fishing boat, during processing, at the retail counter, or somewhere else in between. It may be the result of honest mistakes, but often, it comes about because mislabeling disguises fish that are less desirable, cheaper, or more readily available, stuffing somebody’s pocketbook.

In fact, in an August follow-up to the February report, Oceana noted that Americans are paying a high price for fish fraud. Report author Margot Stiles noted that swapping a lower-cost fish for a higher-value one is like ordering a filet mignon and getting a hamburger instead. She added that if consumers eat mislabeled fish even once a week, they could be losing up to hundreds of dollars each year.

Oceana has called on the federal government to require traceability of all seafood sold in the U.S. Stiles noted that consumers deserve to know the seafood is safe, legally caught, and honestly labeled, including information like where, when, and how it was taken out of the ocean. The group supports the Safety and Fraud Enforcement for Seafood (SAFE) Act pending in Congress.

Tips to Help

Meanwhile, what can you do to increase the odds that what you order is what you get? Unless you do your own DNA testing, you can never be completely sure, but you can try these tips to increase your odds of getting the right thing.

  1. Go directly to the source: Skip the middleman and buy directly from the fishermen at the farmer’s market or pier.
  2. Trace and Trust: This is a program that provides information on the source of seafood. “Trace Register” is another one. Check with grocery chains like Wegmans and Whole Foods and other restaurants offering information through these companies. An ID number, when put into the computer, shows you the species, when the batch was caught, and a picture of the boat captain. The Marine Stewardship Council also offers certification of where seafood comes from, and Fish2Fork has a list of restaurants that serve sustainable seafood.
  3. Go with the odds: According to the study, flounder and tilapia were least likely to be mislabeled. Red snapper, grouper, and halibut were most likely to be mislabeled.
  4. Go to the supermarket: Grocery stores had the lowest rate of mislabeling. When in doubt, pick up something at the store and cook it up at home.
  5. Go big: Large national chains, like Whole Foods, were less likely to have problems than smaller chains and independent grocery chains, because most big guys have internal auditing procedures designed to prevent fish fraud.
  6. Go online: If you don’t live near the ocean and can’t talk directly to the fishermen, try ethical online stores including I Love Blue Sea or Vital Choice for your seafood purchases.
  7. Report any issues: If you suspect seafood fraud, report it to the NOAA Office of Law Enforcement Hotline at 1-800-853-1964.

How do you keep track of your seafood? Please share any tips you may have.

* * *

“Oceana Study Uncovers Widespread Seafood Fraud Nationwide,” Oceana, February 21, 2013,

Dan Flynn, “Oceana Study: ‘Fish Fraud’ Ripping Off American Consumers,” Food Safety News, August 8, 2013,

“Is Something Fishy in the Seafood Aisle?” ABC News, July 16, 2013,

Colleen M. Story

Colleen M. Story

Colleen M. Story, a northwest-based writer, editor, and ghostwriter, has been creating non-fiction materials for individuals, corporations, and commercial magazines for over 17 years. She specializes in the health and wellness field, where she writes and ghostwrites books, e-books, blogs, magazine articles, and more.

Colleen is the founder of Writing and Wellness. Her fantasy novel, “Rise of the Sidenah,” was released with Jupiter Gardens Press in September 2015. Her literary novel, “Loreena’s Gift,” is forthcoming in spring 2016 from Dzanc Books. She lives in Idaho.


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  1. Thanks for your mention and for raising awareness on this topic.

    In the most extensive testing of MSC labelled products carried out to date – 381 samples taken from retail packed products, fresh fish counters, and catering restaurants in 14 different markets – the MSC found that the overall mislabelling rate for MSC certified products was one (1) per cent, or just three mislabelled samples.

    To conduct this investigation, the MSC cross-checked the purchase, sale and processing information from 68 processors in China with sales records from exporters in the US and purchase records from importers in Europe. The review covered over one year’s worth of trade and a total of 18,000 tonnes of pollock exported from the US. No evidence of product substitution was found, although some discrepancies in records indicated the potential for substitution to take place. The MSC was able, as a result of this investigation, to refer specific certificate holders to certifiers for further independent investigation and action.

    You can find out more here

  2. Nomi says:

    Aw Gee. Not that I am a fish eater…I’m not. Unless you count about 2-3 pieces of salmon a year.
    There seems to be no end to the human greed and manipulation of the ‘people’. I shudder to think
    of an expectant mom trying to avoid high mercury fish and getting it anyway.

    I need to go back to the land. The level of greed, evil, etc…is really too high for me to deal with emotionally. It’s freaking everywhere isn’t it. Why am I surprised? Silly me. I should know better, why should the food industry that feeds us, sustains us, be any different than big pharma big AG and now, Big Seafood?

    I think I feel sadder than madder.

  3. I was surprised recently to find in my can of chunk light tuna in water listed ingredients as: light tuna, water, vegetable broth, salt. Then I read contains: tuna, soy. I was currently not choosing to eat soy.

  4. Zyxomma says:

    Never touch the stuff. Back when I did, I went to the Fulton Fish Market at South Street Seaport (those were the days) and bought directly. When I was 16, I went deep sea fishing and caught a 20-pound tuna. We had a sushi chef on board, and it was terrific.

    Now, I don’t eat dead things, but I support labeling, and truth in labeling. Health and peace.

  5. jonathan says:

    What ever happened to …Dont eat fish!!!
    All this craziness is a wake up call.
    Stop killing and eating creatures who want to live themselves.
    Lets get civilized!!

  6. Shazar says:

    Mislabelling and not knowing where your fish is coming from is even more important in these days of high radiation in our oceans as a result of Fukushima. In fact it is getting debatable whether eating any fish or seafood at all from the Pacific Ocean farmed or otherwise is advisable.
    Thanks for an informative article.

  7. linda steele says:

    Mike Adams I hope you share about the ‘open net’ fishing and the salmon from them on your web page if you have not already. I nearly died in August/September of this year from salmon that was called organic at our local farmers market. It was the best tasting wild caught Alaskan salmon I have ever tasted but deadly to anyone with chemical sensitivities. As I studied on line I found several links with information about what seemed to be safe and was not. First, is not organic and the salmon has been fed pesticide pelates to keep down the parasites in the crowded ‘open net’ fishing method.

    In the warning information I found that the health conditions that were reported from consuming this salmon were very serious. Some people found that the reaction was a permanent destroying of the intestines. Mine may have gone there but I found a GAPS practitioner who knew what to do to start my intestines functioning again. I was getting weaker and weaker, my food sensitivities were so bad that I could only eat white food; onion, garlic, cauliflower or I would lose all the food suddenly in an explosive diarrhea. I had all the symptoms of advanced Crohn’s disease suddenly after eating this fake organic salmon.

  8. Jan says:

    Thank you so much for this article. Many order seafood thinking it is a “healthier” choice for their protein source. And it can be. However, if fish that should be avoided is being mislabeled, the choice of seafood from a menu at a restaurant may NOT be so healthy. Pregnant women, children, immune compromised, and many others will benefit from this information. I intend to pass it along to all my family and friends. Fortunately we live close to the Gulf Coast and have choices that some don’t. Again, thank you for raising this awareness.

  9. ktmm says:

    just the tip of the iceberg…. isn’t farmed tilapia treated with hormones to change the sex of the fish, since males are grow faster? also, what about radiation contamination? does anyone test for that? one of the best things to eat, tainted in so many ways! makes me sad that greed is so prevalent.

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