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DNA study exposes phony fish in stores and restaurants

Published: Friday, Feb. 22 2013 12:00 p.m. MST

Fish lie in a Fish market in Jessup, Maryland. A study by Oceana find that one-third of fish are labeled incorrectly.

Jenn Hueting, Copyright Oceana

Something fishy is going on with seafood according to a new study by Oceana: "DNA testing found that one-third (33 percent) of the 1,215 samples analyzed nationwide were mislabeled, according to U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines.

"Of the most commonly collected fish types, samples sold as snapper and tuna had the highest mislabeling rates (87 and 59 percent, respectively), with the majority of the samples identified by DNA analysis as something other than what was found on the label. In fact, only seven of the 120 samples of red snapper purchased nationwide were actually red snapper. The other 113 samples were another fish."

When people buy things they expect the labeling to be correct. Knowing that there may be problems with labeling can affect what people choose to purchase.

Slate says why it matters: "In many cases, you may say who cares? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, and if people like what they're eating, who cares if it's really snapper or not? But as Oceana notes, some of the common substitutions have substantial health implications. 'White tuna,' for example, is often really escolar and eating it 'can have immediate and serious digestive effects for some people who eat more than a few ounces.'"

Diets In Review says the red snapper substitutes found in New York were actually tilefish, "which contain mercury in their flesh and should be avoided."

The worst place in the country for mislabeling was Southern California with 52 percent of the fish being labeled incorrectly — 20 percent higher than the national average. In Seattle, 18 percent were mislabeled. Chicago, 32 percent mislabeled. Austin/Houston, Texas, 49 percent. New York, 39 percent.

It also mattered where people purchased fish. Only 18 percent of fish in groceries was mislabeled. In restaurants it was 38 percent. Sushi venues were the worst, according to the report, with 74 percent of the fish labeled incorrectly.

Brian Clark Howard of National Geographic News says Oceana wasn't able to determine why things were mislabeled, "but experts suggest it is likely a combination of outright fraud, honest mistakes, loose paperwork and the difficulty in identifying some species of fish from others."

Solutions to the problem could be better tracking of fish using barcodes and other technology — or even spot DNA testing.

"We suggest there is an enforcement issue that needs to be addressed," Gavin Gibbons, a spokesperson for National Fisheries Institute, the country's largest seafood trade association, told National Geographic. "FDA is the primary agency that has the task of enforcing the laws that are already on the books. FDA needs to enforce those laws."

EMAIL: mdegroote@deseretnews.com

Twitter: @degroote

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