Why Fish Needs to Be Regulated: We Don't Know What You're Eating

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Investigative pieces from Consumer Reports and the Boston Globe find that, in many places, the fish served are not what customers ordered

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When I wrote What to Eat, a book devoted to discussion of food issues using supermarkets as an organizing device, I needed five chapters to discuss issues related to fish. By the time I was through, I considered the fish sections of supermarkets to be the Wild West of the food industry: anything goes and the buyer had best be wary.

Fish regulation, I pointed out, is divided among at least four federal agencies: USDA for marketing, NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) for ocean fisheries, EPA for fish caught for sport and recreation, and FDA for fish safety. This alone should tell you that this is a virtually unregulated industry.

Now the Boston Globe presents the latest evidence for this dismal view. Investigative reporters examined fish served in Boston-area restaurants. Oops. They found widespread bait and switch. In many restaurants -- even good ones -- the fish served are not what customers think they paid for.

On the menu, but not on your plate: fish at restaurants were mislabeled about half the time, sometimes deliberately. The site takes some work to scroll through but is worth the effort. Here is one example:

At East Bay Grille in Plymouth, what was advertised as native scrod or haddock was actually previously frozen Pacific cod. A general manager said the restaurant hadn't yet updated the menu. The revised menu, however, still describes the fish as "fresh day boat scrod."

From sea to sushi bar, a system open to abuse: fish is a largely unregulated industry and problems are pervasive.

Suppliers such as Goldwell use the names interchangeably, contributing to a little-known but pervasive problem in the international seafood industry: lower-quality and less expensive fish mislabeled as desirable species. Some distributors do this unknowingly, while others intend to deceive. Lax government oversight, industry indifference, and consumer ignorance allow mislabeling to flourish.

Fish misidentification is especially common at sushi restaurants, partly because they use various names for the same fish. The confusion can be compounded by packaging labels written in other languages that are incorrectly translated into English.

Bertucci's tries to right a wrong: How hake ended up as cod on the menu at 94 Bertucci's restaurants.

Scrutiny vowed on fish labeling: state officials vow to improve oversight of seafood sales.

Good luck to state officials. They will have their hands full trying to get on top of this industry.  Here's what I wrote in What to Eat:

Much of this industry acts like it is virtually unregulated and as if all it cares about is selling fish as quickly as possible at as high a price as the traffic will bear. Out of ignorance or, sometimes, unscrupulousness, the more profit-minded segments of this industry bend the rules to their own advantage any time they can get away with it. No wonder "fishy" translates as "suspicious." If you want to buy fish, you need to watch out for labels that are sometimes untruthful and often misleading."

Thanks to the Boston Globe for exposing this fish scandal.

And thanks to Consumer Reports for doing a similar story in its December issue. Its investigation found 20 percent of 190 samples to be mislabeled. And the only fish consistently labeled correctly were Chilean sea bass, coho salmon, and bluefin and ahi tuna.

Regulation anyone?

Image: smart-foto/Shutterstock.

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This post also appears on Food Politics, an Atlantic partner site.

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Marion Nestle is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics. More

Nestle also holds appointments as Professor of Sociology at NYU and Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. She is the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (revised edition, 2007), Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2003), and What to Eat (2006). Her most recent book is Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat. She writes the Food Matters column for The San Francisco Chronicle and blogs almost daily at Food Politics.

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