We’ve all been lied to. In terms of the seafood we’re buying, of course.
A new study from the University of Washington has found as much as 30 percent of the seafood we buy in restaurants and supermarkets is wrongly labeled. This sounds pretty disconcerting from the view of a consumer, but it’s actually surprisingly good for sustainability.
By and large, the fish that make up this third of mislabeled seafood tend to be of a better conservation status and slightly less expensive than the species the label says they are. It makes sense – it’s cheaper to sell more common, easily sourced fish.
Although the general trend was positive for sustainability, there were some exceptions. For example, snapper is defined somewhere between vulnerable to endangered, but it is often substituted for fish that is considered critically endangered.
“We found a lot of diversity in conservation status across taxa,” co-author Margaret Siple said in a statement. “Depending on what you order or purchase, you can get a fish that is more endangered than what you ordered, or something that is actually of better conservation status. What we want to emphasize is how diverse these differences are.”
Among the most commonly mislabeled seafood were croaker (100 percent of which were mislabeled), sturgeon (82.35 percent mislabeled), shark catfish (90.24 percent mislabeled), perch (63.24 percent mislabeled), and snapper (67.56 percent mislabeled).
The mislabeling could be for a couple of reasons, including active attempts to mislead consumers into paying more, or simply human error. After all, a filet of white fish can look like any number of species, even to a seasoned marine biologist. Equally, mislabeling could happen at any of the many stages of the supply chain.
So, while mislabeling is sometimes a good thing for sea stocks, it’s not the case for all marine species. Additionally, it highlights some dubious practices along the supply chain, which means a lot of the food we eat is poorly managed and unaccountable. In sum, the researchers say they hope that the results will help seafood certification efforts, encourage more transparency in the industry, and help consumers make better choices.
"We hope this study can help regulators understand where in the chain of custody they should be putting their efforts," Siple added.