Supermarkets Scrutinized Over Seafood Labeling

The state attorney general’s office reported Friday that high levels of fraud have been found in seafood labeling in supermarkets.

The report cited Stew Leonard’s and Uncle Giuseppe’s for especially high amounts of mislabeling.

The investigation, which included DNA testing, found that more than one in four samples purchased was not sold under a federally-recognized market name for that species. Mislabeling of certain popular species was rampant – including “wild” salmon (27.59% of samples sold as “wild” salmon were mislabeled), red snapper (67% were mislabeled), and lemon sole (87.5% were mislabeled). The substitutes were often cheaper, less desirable, and less environmentally sustainable species. This includes farm-raised salmon sold as wild salmon, lane snapper sold as red snapper, and swai sold as lemon sole.

A small subset of supermarket brands was responsible for a vastly disproportionate share of suspected mislabeling. Of the 12 chains with 10 or more samples tested, five had rates of suspected mislabeling that exceeded 50%, including Food Bazaar, Foodtown, Stew Leonard’s, Uncle Giuseppe’s, and Western Beef. These five received enforcement letters seeking further information, including on their seafood quality control practices, and could face financial penalties. 

Attorney General Barbara D. Underwood said, “It’s clear that seafood fraud isn’t just a fluke – it’s rampant across New York. Supermarkets are the last line of defense before a phony fish ends up as family dinner, and they have a duty to do more. Yet our report makes clear that New Yorkers may too often be the victim of mislabeling. We’re taking enforcement action, and consumers should be alert and demand that their supermarket put customers first by taking serious steps to ensure quality control at their seafood counters.”

From late 2017 through 2018, the Attorney General’s office (OAG) undertook the first major government investigation in the U.S. to target seafood fraud at retail supermarket chains. OAG purchased seafood based on availability at 155 locations across 29 supermarket brands, targeting seafood from nine distinct categories, including red snapper, snapper (varieties other than red), grouper, cod, wild salmon (including chum, Coho, sockeye, and king), halibut, lemon sole, sole (varieties other than lemon), striped bass, and white tuna.

>OAG then sent the samples for testing by the Ocean Genome Legacy Center, an academic laboratory at Northeastern University. The report details the DNA barcoding method that OAG used to test seafood purchases and mislabeling, as well as certain limitations associated with the results. For example, because seafood selection and availability vary substantially, no two chains had the same variety and number samples collected. The results are therefore illustrative, but not representative.

Using this approach, the Attorney General’s report details several key findings:

  • More than one in four (26.92%) seafood purchases with an identifiable barcode was mislabeled. About two-thirds of the supermarket brands reviewed had at least one instance of suspected mislabeling.
  • While mislabeling affected virtually every tested seafood category, there was rampant mislabeling found in certain species. 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 “wild” salmon often got the farm-raised seafood they had paid on average 34% more to avoid.
  • The substitutes were typically cheaper, less desirable species. Snappers sold as red snapper, for example, tended to sell for half as much when properly labeled as another type of snapper. Some substitutes (e.g., lane snapper) had higher mercury levels or came from less sustainable fisheries than the intended species, raising consumer safety and environmental sustainability issues.
  • Seafood mislabeling occurred across most regions of New York, but was most widespread downstate. New York City had a staggering mislabeling rate (42.65%) across all samples tested, with similarly high rates of mislabeling on Long Island (40.63%) and an only slightly lower rate in Westchester and Rockland Counties (32.43%).  
  • The report warns consumers to be on alert for seafood pricing that seems too good to be true, as it may signal problems. The report also encourages consumers to demand that their supermarkets provide precise labeling of the seafood they sell and describe their seafood quality and sustainability practices. Retailers, however, are ultimately responsible for accurately marketing seafood.

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