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Sure, it looks like fish but which fish is it? Study finds mislabeling, substitutions

| Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013, 9:39 p.m.

Fish fraud is off the scale, a new study shows.

A fillet of rare red snapper could really be cheap tilapia. A pricey wild-caught salmon steak from Alaska could be farmed Atlantic salmon from Chile.

Those are some of the substitutions found during a two-year investigation of seafood by the world's largest ocean conservation group. One-third of the fish purchased in restaurants, supermarkets and sushi counters was mislabeled, the non-profit group Oceana said in a report Thursday.

Oceana's volunteers collected fish samples at 674 supermarkets, restaurants and sushi counters in 21 states and found several examples of fish fraud.

For instance, 87 percent of the snapper samples were not snapper. White tuna was mislabeled 59 percent of the time. Between one-third and one-fifth of the halibut, grouper, cod and Chilean sea bass tested were mislabeled.

“Honestly, it was a surprise,” says Beth Lowell, who coordinated the survey for Oceana. “Everywhere we looked for seafood fraud, we found it. It's consistent around the country.”

At sushi restaurants, 74 percent had at least one sample come back mislabeled. At restaurants, 38 percent had at least one problem sample; in grocery stores, 18 percent did.

Oceana wasn't able to determine whether the mislabeling occurred at the supplier, distributor or retailer. Seafood goes through many hands, so it's easy for someone to substitute it, partly because 84 percent of the seafood eaten in the United States is imported, according to Gavin Gibbons of the National Fisheries Institute, a seafood industry trade group.

There are no solid government figures on seafood substitution and fraud overall, said Steve Wilson, chief quality officer with the voluntary Seafood Inspection Program of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. A Food and Drug Administration survey that he cited found that only 2 percent of fish sold in stores and restaurants was mislabeled, but he said the survey wasn't focused specifically on higher-priced — and, therefore, more frequently substituted — species.

Selling one kind of fish under another name is illegal under FDA regulations, but there is little oversight. A 2009 Government Accounting Office report found that about 2 percent of seafood is inspected specifically for species substitution or fraud.

Some fish are honestly mislabeled, often because once they are filleted, many fish look similar. Outright fraud, though, is common as suppliers or restaurants pass off a cheaper, less tasty species for a more expensive and rare one, Lowell said.

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