Fish Tales: Is the fish you buy really what it’s labeled?

Sunday 27th, November 2011 / 16:06

Did you read the fake fish story? An article in Consumer Reports (December 2011) discusses the purchasing and testing of 190 pieces of seafood from retail stores and restaurants throughout New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

Don’t miss this: more than one-fifth of the fish pieces were mislabeled as different species of fish, incompletely labeled or misidentified by employees. Has this ever happened to you?

Consumer Reports sent their fish samples to an outside lab for DNA testing. We’re talking fish forensics! Researchers take genetic material from the fish and compare it against standardized gene fragments similar to genetic fingerprints used in crime investigations.

Guess what they found out?

  1. Only four of the 14 fish types were identified correctly (sea bass, coho salmon, bluefin and ahi tuna).
  2. 18% of the fish samples didn’t match the names on menus, labels or placards. Fish were passed off for grouper, catfish, red snapper, yellow fin tuna and others.
  3. From a health standpoint, one fish sample labeled as grouper was really tilefish, which is on the Food and Drug Administration avoid list for children and women of childbearing age due to the mercury content.

Why does this matter to you? If you bought an expensive piece of fish and it was actually a cheaper species, your wallet was impacted. But what if you bought fish containing potentially health-harming mercury or PCBs? Then your health comes into play. Or, maybe you try to buy sustainable seafood and were given a species whose numbers are on the decline.

Besides better inspections, what can you do to reduce the chances that you pay for mystery fish?

1.  Be an informed consumer. The more questions you ask at the fish counter or the server at your restaurant, the more serious companies become in their purchases and inspections. Restaurants and grocers know that consumers today have quick access to helpful information.

2.  Check out the free FishPhone app from Blue Ocean Institute, a quick guide to help you make sustainable selections when you eat out or shop. I use this app and it’s so easy. Next to all the choices is a fish symbol varying in color from bright green for a safe choice to red for don’t even think about it. You can search for fish or check the A-Z listing. When you touch the fish name, a quick review pops up so that you can make a smart choice right then. The app even includes fish recipes and wine pairing suggestions.

3.  Send a text while you stand in front of the fish counter and make sure the fish you plan to purchase is eco-friendly and without a health advisory. This very cool text tip is also from

Text 30644 with the message FISH followed by the name of the fish you want to buy…for example, FISH scallops or FISH salmon. I sent a text for FISH grouper and received a text within seconds telling me all things grouper that I needed to know.

How do you know where your fish is coming from?

The Country of Origin Labeling called COOL, which was developed by the USDA, requires all large retailers (supermarkets and big box stores) to disclose the country of origin of fresh or frozen fish and whether it is farm-raised or wild-caught. Seafood standards are often higher in the United States than in other countries so when you purchase ‘locally’, you may reduce the likelihood of contamination from toxic substances that are illegal in the U.S.

Exemptions of COOL: The law does not require restaurants or small fish markets to disclose the country of origin on the label.

Want more? Listen to this week’s podcast below.

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