A new report suggests that consumers worldwide have a 20 percent chance of purchasing or consuming mislabeled seafood.
A review of more than 200 studies from 55 countries by Oceana, an international ocean conservation group, found that mislabeling occurred in 5,000 of 25,000 seafood samples that were tested.
The species most commonly substituted for other products were hake, escolar and Asian catfish – which was substituted for 18 different kinds of more expensive fish.
The studies showed the problem occurs in every stop along the seafood supply chain, whether it be packaging and processing, wholesale and retail distribution, or imports and exports.
Nearly two-thirds of the studies showed an economic benefit for mislabeling the products.
A U.S. presidential task force looking at the problem announced a proposed rule in February to establish a tracing program in order to collect information about the international harvest of 13 types of seafood considered at risk for fraud. Tracking the chain of custody for these products until they reach the U.S. border would reduce the chance of fraud occurring in imported seafood.
Domestically harvested seafood already faces state and federal reporting requirements.
Oceana says the proposed higher scrutiny of imported seafood is a good start. But the group has called on the federal government to be able to trace and verify the retail path of all seafood sold in the United States – from its point of harvest all the way to the dinner plate.
Without it, “consumers will continue to be cheated, hardworking, honest fishermen will be undercut, and the long-term productivity of our oceans will continue to be in jeopardy,” said a statement from Beth Lowell, senior campaign director for Oceana.
“It’s clear that seafood fraud respects no borders,” Lowell’s statement added. “The path seafood travels from the fishing boat or farm to our dinner plates is long, complex and nontransparent, rife with opportunities for fraud and mislabeling. American consumers deserve to know more about their seafood, including what kind of fish it is, how and where it was caught or farmed, and they should be able to trust the information is accurate.”
Although about 90 percent of domestically consumed seafood is imported, a 2009 GAO study found that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration inspects less than 2 percent of imported seafood at the U.S. border.
Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker, a Republican, and Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., wrote President Barack Obama in January 2014 asking that federal agencies do a better job of coordinating their efforts to fight seafood fraud. The White House formed the task force later that year.
The report comes on the eve of the Our Ocean Conference, which brings conservation groups and activists from all over the world to Washington, D.C., next week. Secretary of State John Kerry will host the conference on Sept. 15 and 16.