After mislabeling scandal, should seafood industry be regulated?
FISH TALES are supposedly the lies about the ones that got away. Actually, it turns out, they’re about the ones that end up on our plates.
A quick recap: Globe reporters bought fish from a variety of restaurants and retailers around the state. The seafood —183 samples in all - was sent out for DNA analysis. Of those, 48 percent were mislabeled. My reaction since the story first appeared this week has been a mix of nausea, outrage, and embarrassment — the last because I feel a fool for my gullibility, which made it so easy for the seafood industry to put one over on me.
And, with the exception of perhaps some innocent cases of miscommunication, lies they are. The reporters for the story were careful to use neutral words such as “mislabeling’’ since it was hard to pin down blame. But somewhere along the food chain, from catching through processing to shipping and then purchasing, someone consciously substituted one fish for another. And that substitution, in almost all cases, was of a cheaper, less desirable seafood: white bass for striped bass, haddock for cod, swai for flounder. It’s the classic retail rip-off: selling plastic beads as pearls.
Nor were the Globe’s findings some sort of statistical outlier. Oceana, an advocacy group, did its own sampling last spring and concluded seafood is mislabeled half the time. A new study by Consumer Reports found 22 percent of fish in three states mislabeled.
What was most compelling about the Globe story, however, were the familiar names behind the deceptions: Bertucci’s, Skipjack’s, Ken’s Steak House, and Kowloon. (Equally striking were the places telling the truth: Ninety Nine? Wendy’s? So much for our easy assumption that upscale is always better.)
In one case, the risks posed by mislabeling are significant. Escolar is almost always, apparently, substituted for white tuna at sushi restaurants. That’s a problem. Escolar is the ocean’s version of really bad baked beans, with the potential to cause gastro-intestinal distress, including diarrhea and cramping. In fact, the fish is banned in Japan, of all places, for its toxicity (this, remember, is the country that celebrates eating the occasionally fatal pufferfish). The US Food and Drug Administration also recommends it not be marketed, but has never mustered the gumption to simply ban it altogether. Hence it is sold — most of the time branded as tuna (which it isn’t) but sometimes also correctly labeled escolar — to consumers (such as me) who simply were unaware of its hazards.
But aside from escolar, the damage suffered by consumers may seem hard to pin down. As with the plastic beads labeled pearls, if no one is the wiser, who’s hurt? Haddock, for instance, is a perfectly decent fish, even when it’s called cod. Granted, I’m likely overpaying. But otherwise, shouldn’t I be OK?
Maybe not. Some of the substitutes — such as tilapia for red snapper - are nutritionally inferior. Moreover, the worrisome thing about the rampant mislabeling of seafood is it suggests that there may be other, far deeper problems. DNA analysis can only tell us so much. It can’t tell us, for instance, where the fish is from, how old it is, or how it’s been handled. Badly sourced or badly treated fish can easily subject one to all sorts of toxins and diseases.
The Globe’s exposé is reminiscent of Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel, “The Jungle,’’ whose horrific description of the meatpacking industry ultimately led to the creation of the FDA. More than 100 years later, do we need the same kind of regulation of seafood? Free market advocates — and I am one — would like to think that the market could regulate itself. Legal Seafoods and Whole Foods, for instance, have long bragged about how carefully they source their products. Yet it turns out Legal mislabeled as well. And perhaps we could be smarter as consumers - although when cooked and presented in dim light, it gets difficult to tell one white fish from another.
The predictable calls have already begun for new regulations and in this case, rightly so. The political tenor of the times tries to find fault with any kind of government intervention. But the extraordinary degree of fraud involved suggests that there can be even greater harm when it is lacking.
Originally published in the Boston Globe on October 29, 2011.