Talk about bait and switch. A Globe series has found that nearly half of 183 fish samples from local restaurants and supermarkets were not the species ordered by consumers. It’s fraud and mismanagement on a shameful scale requiring aggressive attention from state and federal consumer officials.
The basic scam, which can occur anywhere along the supply chain, is to substitute a cheaper, abundant species for a more expensive, desirable one: inexpensive, farm-raised tilapia for wild red snapper; Vietnamese catfish for grouper; escolar, a fish associated with gastrointestinal problems, for albacore white tuna; frozen Pacific cod for fresh scrod. The list goes on, as does the deception.
The nation’s meat industry undergoes regular inspection by federal regulators. The seafood industry is the Wild West by comparison.
A spring report by the nonprofit group Oceana found that while 84 percent of the seafood eaten in the United States is imported, only 2 percent of it is inspected, and less than .001 percent is inspected specifically for fraud. Some states, including Florida, have tried to rip away the fish disguises by conducting more local inspections. Massachusetts needs to follow suit. But with about 1,700 species of seafood from all over the world coming to the US market, it’s like swimming against the tide. The clout and resources of the federal Food and Drug Administration and the National Marine Fisheries Service are needed to confront the problem.
Fruits and vegetables can be traced through electronic identification systems that can be decoded at high speeds. The same technology should be used for domestic and imported seafood. Standardized data requirements could include the origin of vessels, fish farms, processors, and distributors, as well as information on additives and whether a product is fresh, frozen, or thawed.
The problem is not unique to Massachusetts. DNA sampling of 1,000 fish fillets over four years by Therion International, a major tester of seafood, found that fish was mislabeled about half the time on menus in 50 cities nationwide. It’s a stunning rate of deception.
Many honest brokers in the fish industry may balk at the added time and expense of testing. But theirs is a short-lived product. And public confidence is just as perishable.