An Alarming Amount of Fish Is Not What the Label Says It Is

mislabeled fish

A large new study from Oceana — an ocean advocacy group — reveals a global epidemic of mislabeling fish. Oceana's study found that one in five of more than 25,000 samples of seafood was incorrectly labeled. That includes a review of more than 200 studies from 55 countries published since Oceana's last report in 2014. In only one of those 200+ studies was there an absence of mislabeling.

That's a little horrifying when you think of ordering fish at a restaurant and just getting something roughly like the fish you ordered. Or if those standards were applied to other food. Say, you order a burger and there's a 20 percent chance that what you're getting isn't beef, but something cheaper that you can't identify.

"Seafood fraud... threatens consumer health and safety, cheats consumers when they pay higher prices for a mislabeled lower-value fish, and hides harmful practices like illegal fishing, poorly regulated aquaculture, and human rights abuses," the advocacy group notes in the study.

mislabeled fish

The report highlights pangasius — a type of Asian catfish — as emblematic of the ways that the seafood fraud is being committed. It's regularly used to stand in for higher-value fish. As you can see in the chart above, it's globally used as a replacement for many different fish, like grouper and perch.

"The path seafood travels from the fishing boat or farm to our dinner plates is long, complex and non-transparent, rife with opportunities for fraud and mislabeling," said Oceana senior campaign director Beth Lowell. "American consumers deserve to know more about their seafood, including what kind of fish it is, how and where it was caught or farmed, and they should be able to trust the information is accurate."

The study is accompanied by an interactive map that details various findings in the studies. It includes some horrible revelations, like that one study found 77 percent of red snapper in Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Wisconsin wasn't actually red snapper. 77 percent. What the hell?

A separate study in Chicago looked at red snapper from 13 different restaurants and found that none of the dishes served actually contained red snapper. None. What the hell? The study contacted each of the restaurants about the mislabeling. "Restaurants either 'didn't know' it was a different species or intentionally labeled it 'red snapper' because customers do not recognize or ask for sea bream."

It makes you wonder if those Swedish Fish Oreos are actually made with catfish.

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Dustin Nelson is a News Writer with Thrillist. He holds a Guinness World Record, but has never met the fingernail lady. He’s written for Sports Illustrated, Men’s Journal, The Rumpus, and other digital wonderlands. Follow him @dlukenelson.