Over 25 Percent of Seafood at New York Supermarkets Is Mislabeled, Says Attorney General Report

The results of the statewide testing were described as "disturbing."

Photo: Chalffy/Getty Images

If you weren't already aware that seafood is often woefully mislabeled, let this be your umpteenth wakeup call. From global studies like Oceana's 2016 report that about one fifth of seafood sampled worldwide isn't what it says it is to more local research like UCLA's 2017 finding that half of the sushi tested in Los Angeles wasn't what was listed on the menu, fraud — possibly with a dash of damaging carelessness — in the seafood industry is an epidemic. And yet, even though this problem has been well publicized, each new report seems to show that little has been done to fix it. To wit, the Office of the New York State Attorney General recently released a report entitled "Fishy Business: Seafood Fraud and Mislabeling in New York State Supermarkets" — and from the very fact that they did a study, you can easily guess what they found.

Before we get into the numbers, know that this was no small investigation. The Office of the Attorney General (OAG) purchased samples from 155 locations across 29 supermarket brands that then underwent DNA testing at the Ocean Genome Legacy Center at Northeastern University. The key takeaways: nearly 27-percent of seafood purchases with an identifiable barcode were mislabeled; though mislabeling affected almost all types of seafood tested, certain species suffered from "rampant" mislabeling; the mislabeled seafood was "typically cheaper, less desirable species than the desired species;" and lastly, five supermarket chains had rates of suspected mislabeling so high — over 50 percent — that they are currently under consumer fraud investigation.

Digging back into specifics, the OAG report describes the "rampant" mislabeling of some species thusly: "The results suggest that consumers who buy lemon sole, red snapper, and grouper are more likely to receive an entirely different fish. Similarly, consumers who bought what was advertised as 'wild' salmon often actually received farm-raised salmon instead. Such consumers had often paid more money—on average 34% more—to avoid farm raised fish."

A mind-blowing 14 out of 16 samples of lemon sole were mislabeled, as were an equally appalling 31 out of 46 red snapper samples. Grouper also fared poorly, though with a smaller sample size: five out of eight samples were mislabeled. All the other species of fish were labeled correctly at least — cough — two-thirds of the time. Halibut, cod, sole, sockeye salmon, and striped bass all had the strongest results, with less than 10 percent of samples coming back mislabeled. (The other tested categories were "snapper varieties," king salmon, wild salmon, and coho salmon.) Meanwhile, across all types of salmon — including those generically labeled as "wild" — these fish were found to actually be farm-raised about 13 percent of the time.

For what it's worth to actual New Yorkers, the report broke down the state by region, and some areas fared far better than others. Seafood in New York City was mislabeled over 42 percent of the time, whereas all 28 of Buffalo's samples can back accurate. As a broad rule, the farther out you got from New York City, the better the results became.

And finally, if you're wondering what supermarkets are currently under further investigation, the report states that the OAG "directed enforcement letters" to Food Bazaar, Foodtown, Stew Leonard's, Uncle Giuseppe's, and Western Beef "which are subject to further investigation."

Still, the lingering question is what are consumers to do? Unfortunately, though the report directly addresses how supermarkets can combat the seafood fraud epidemic, it doesn't offer a ton of advice for consumers. And in fact, without a certain level of expertise or testing equipment, there isn't a ton most consumers really can do… which is kind of the reason this problem exists to begin with.

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