Your dinner has arrived, a nice piece of fish, delicately cooked, served perhaps over a bed of rice or, wow, maybe quinoa.
Was it wild salmon you ordered? Would you be surprised and disappointed to learn that you got coho instead?
As the nonprofit organization Oceana has put it: “Recent studies have found that seafood may be mislabeled as often as 25 percent to 70 percent of the time for fish like red snapper, wild salmon, and Atlantic cod, disguising species that are less desirable, cheaper or more readily available.”
Seafood fraud has been documented in recent years by newspapers, Consumer Reports and others.
And now two senators want the Obama administration to do something about it.
Sen. Edward Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, and Roger Wicker, a Mississippi Republican, wrote last week to President Barack Obama urging action on seafood fraud.
“This fraud is ripping off consumers,” they wrote, “posing health risks by disguising species that may be harmful for sensitive groups, and harming our oceans by making it easier for illegally caught product to make its way into the U.S. market.”
A big part of the problem, according to a 2009 report by the Government Accountability Office, involves a lack of coordination and communication by three agencies most responsible for seafood inspections: the Food and Drug Administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Customs and Border Protection. (It may only add to the confusion and inefficiencies to note that the Department of Agriculture has jurisdiction over catfish.)
Upward of 90 percent of all seafood consumed domestically is imported, the senators noted, but the FDA inspects less than 2 percent of those products.
In 2011 Oceana conducted a study of seafood in the Los Angeles market – fish sold at grocery stores and restaurants, including sushi purveyors – and reported that 55 of all samples it collected were mislabeled, and every fish sold with the word “snapper” in the label, 34 out of 34, was misidentified and out of whack with FDA guidelines.
Markey and Wicker say they will work toward solutions in Congress, but expressed hope that Obama’s agencies would do a better job of working together on the fraud. They should get on it.
Fish consumers deserve accurate descriptions of what’s on their plates.