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Sustainability and Suspect Seafood: What Am I Really Eating?

Center for the Global Food Value Chain Blog

Seafood should play a starring role in our everyday diet. Eating it is designed to keep us healthy. Yet, we keep hearing that it’s a disappearing commodity. How do we address the growing concern around the sustainability of seafood? And, if some species are disappearing, how do consumers know if they’re getting the product they paid for, or if it’s being substituted with a different product/species?

When it comes to your next seafood purchase, how do you know if it really is sustainable? According to various seafood and environmental organizations, sustainability aims to address a species that’s being overfished (the long-term health of the wild species population), or it may refer to whether the fishing methods used are environmentally and eco-friendly. Sustainable fishing help maintain seafood so that it may be plentiful for future generations and does not do harm to other animals in the sea.

A Truven Health Analytics NPR Health Poll of 3,000 Americans was released in February 2013. It found that “34% of respondents said that sustainable fishing in general is very important; 44% said it was important; while 23% said it is not at all important”. Also, 22% of the respondents said they’d be willing to pay 10-20% more in price for sustainably caught seafood. 3% said they would be willing to pay an extra 20% or more.

Has the willingness to pay more for the seafood that is not plentiful led to the growing problem of food fraud?

Oceana — an ocean conservation organization — conducted one of the largest seafood fraud investigations to date. From 2010 to 2012, Oceana collected more than 1,200 seafood samples from 674 retail outlets (supermarkets, fish shops, high-end restaurants, and sushi bars) in 21 states to determine if they were honestly labeled. DNA testing found that one-third (33 percent) of the 1,215 samples analyzed nationwide were mislabeled, according to U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines. Snapper and tuna had the highest mislabeling rates (87 and 59 %, respectively). 1 Was the food mislabeled on purpose? Was there an attempt — somewhere along the supply chain — to fraudulently increase profits?

So, what are we supposed to do to help with seafood sustainability and address food fraud? Arm yourself with a little knowledge. Many retailers have pamphlets, signs, and knowledgeable staff willing to answer your questions. Look for those businesses that are eager to provide this information. Here are a few tips to support sustainable seafood efforts and get the species of seafood we’re paying for:

  • Buy from a reputable retail outlet (supermarkets, fish shops, high-end restaurants, and sushi bars).
  • Read the labels, or ask where the seafood came from and how it was caught.
  • Eat seafood that is readily available (catfish, mussels, Atlantic croaker) rather than large, predatory fish (swordfish, shark, tuna).
  • Purchase fish that grows quickly like mahi mahi, and tilapia as opposed to fish that are slow-growing (orange roughy, grouper, Chilean sea bass).
  • Support local U.S. farmers that raise fish that don’t deplete the wild caught population.

Remember having a little knowledge might help your conscience, finances, health, and the population of seafood you like to eat.

1Oceana Study Reveals Seafood Fraud Nationwide February 2013- Authors: Kimberly Warner, Ph.D., Walker Timme, Beth Lowell and Michael Hirshfield, Ph.D.

Terry Levee
Manager, Food Safety
Deloitte & Touche LLP




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