Editorial | Mislabeled seafood puts local industry at risk

The following editorial appeared Wednesday in The (Hilton Head) Island Packet:

As the weather warms, shrimp will soon be offered for sale out of the backs of pickup trucks along U.S. 278. Tourists and locals alike will be tempted to pull over and pick up a few pounds of what they believe to be a fresh, local delight.

Similar seafood temptations will be offered on restaurant menus and in grocery store display cases.

But consumers should be careful. There’s no guarantee that the seafood is fresh or that it came from within the United States, much less the S.C. coast – no matter what the label reads or the server claims.

Inferior, imported seafood is being mislabeled and sold across the country. Last year, the conservation group Oceana reported that 33 percent of the more than 1,200 seafood samples it purchased and tested nationwide were mislabeled. For example, only seven of the 120 samples of fish purported to be red snapper really were red snapper. Another investigation by The Boston Globe in the Boston metro area yielded similar results.

With an astonishing 92 percent of the nation’s seafood now imported, seafood fraud is a growing problem.

It’s bad for consumers who may not realize what they’re really eating and could be paying a premium for local seafood while getting a high-mercury, imported alternative. It’s bad for fish species that could be overfished because of mislabeling. And it hurts America’s honest fishermen who are playing by the rules.

“It’s a huge issue that people are selling fish as something that it’s not,” Chris Conklin recently told The Association Press. Conklin owns a seafood store and several grouper fishing boats he operates out of Murrells Inlet.

“I know a place where they pay $2 or $3 a pound, thaw it out and sell it for $18 and call it local grouper,” he said.

But the local guys who mischaracterize their catch represent a small piece of the problem. Experts agree the bigger issue is imported seafood that is mislabeled as domestic. That means local eateries and grocery stores are getting bamboozled the same as their customers.

Unfortunately, there’s not much the average seafood-seeking consumer can do. There’s no easy way for them to tell if shrimp is local. And unless diners can distinguish between different fish species, they can’t be sure that what’s on their plates is what is listed on the menu, said Frank Blum, executive director of the South Carolina Seafood Alliance.

It’s up to lawmakers to stop the growing problem of mislabeled seafood. Bills at both the state and federal level aim to do just that.

The one with the most promise is a federal bill, the Safety and Fraud Enforcement for Seafood Act, that requires information, such as the species name and where it was caught, to be listed on the product and included through its final sale.

We hope progress can be made on this issue soon. Consumers, the ocean and our nation’s fishermen deserve a seafood catch free of mislabeling catches.

In the meantime, diners with fish allergies should opt for the chicken plate.