That Pricey Fish On Your Plate Might Be A Cheap Impostor
December 11, 2012

That Pricey Fish On Your Plate Might Be A Cheap Impostor

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

Fresh seafood at some of Manhattan´s finest restaurants can come with a hefty price tag attached, so it might come as an outrage to some New York City foodies that the fish on their plates may be a cheap impostor.

In a new study from Oceana, an international conservation group, DNA testing revealed that 39 percent of fish samples taken from 81 establishments in Manhattan were mislabeled.

In some cases, the DNA-identified fish were cheaper versions of the fish they were said to be. Other fish were found to be species that consumers have been urged to avoid for the sake of sustainability. Although mislabeling of fish is against the law, it is extremely difficult to detect.

The Oceana maintained the anonymity of the restaurants involved in the study, but noted that at least one restaurant was in the city´s highest price range.

“There are a lot of flummoxed people out there who are trying to buy fish carefully and trying to shop their conscience, but they can´t if this kind of fraud is happening,” lead Oceana researcher Kimberly Warner, told the NY Times.

Some of the mislabeled fish could pose a health concern. The DNA tests revealed mislabeled tilefish–a species that pregnant or nursing women are told to avoid because they often contain unsafe levels of mercury that could be passed to a fetus or newborn child.

With many potential hazards being species-specific, mislabeled fish could also result in dangerous allergic reactions or harmful pathogens being passed to consumers. For example, 94 percent of fish sold as white tuna was found to be a fish known as snake mackerel, which contains a toxin that can cause a severe type of diarrhea if too much is eaten.

In the study, Oceana supporters and volunteers sent in samples of fish they had eaten–leading the organization to admit that the study could be slightly misrepresentative.

Of the 142 samples collected, tuna and snapper tended to be the most commonly mislabeled fishes, the study said. Every sushi restaurant represented in the study included a mislabeled fish sample.

The Manhattan findings mirror those of other Oceana studies conducted in Los Angeles, Boston and Miami, where 55, 48 and 31 percent of samples, respectively, were mislabeled. New York differs from other major cities' seafood markets in that it is dominated by smaller, independent food stores. Those stores were found selling 40 percent mislabeled fish, while national chain stores in the area offered fish that were found to be mislabeling with a 12 percent frequency.

Mislabeling, whether intentionally or not, has plagued the seafood industry for years. A 1992 Consumer Reports study found about one-third of the seafood sampled in Chicago, New York, and San Jose was incorrectly labeled. In August 2011, it was reported that Zabar's, a gourmet food store on Manhattan, had been substituting crawfish as lobster in its lobster salad for almost 15 years.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been busy trying to stamp out seafood fraud, recently outfitting field labs with DNA testing equipment and collecting hundreds of samples in an attempt to properly calibrate its enforcement efforts.