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Everything you need to know about counterfeit seafood

October 25, 2021

Sometimes you’ll come across a deal that you can’t pass up — a wild-caught salmon dinner for $19? Chilean sea bass for $9.99 at the grocery store?

Chances are if a deal sounds too good to be true, it is. Seafood, in particular fish, is one of the most commonly counterfeited categories of food. 

Keep reading to learn about the most common types of fish counterfeit, where you might find it, and the most commonly counterfeit items.

Types of fish counterfeit

There are a couple of different ways that seafood counterfeit happens. Mislabeling is by far the most common, where one type of fish is labeled as another. This can happen accidentally with misidentification or sloppy labeling processes, and can also happen deliberately, where they label a common or cheap fish as something pricier and more exotic. 

Mislabeling farmed fish as “wild-caught” is also a common error, as the flesh is virtually indistinguishable and there is a great price discrepancy. Some of the fish labeled as sustainably caught were actually not, as was the case with overfished Atlantic halibut being labeled as Pacific halibut. 

Other types of seafood counterfeit include dishonesty about the product weight — marking fish at a higher weight than the package contained, adding ice to increase the weight, and avoiding duties and tariffs.

The most likely places to encounter seafood counterfeit

Mislabeling, the most common form of fish counterfeit, is astoundingly common. Another study by Oceana found that 21% of fish was mislabeled. This jumped to a whopping 87% when specifically looking at snapper, and 63% of sea bass.

Seafood counterfeit happens both at grocery stores as well as restaurants. Small markets are more likely to have mislabeled seafood than large national chains. Across all restaurants, one out of every three restaurants tested had at least one seafood menu item that was mislabeled. Sushi restaurants in particular were more likely to serve mislabeled fish than other types of restaurants. 

In Oceana’s study, geography also made a big difference. In Pennsylvania, an astounding 56% of tested seafood was mislabeled, whereas in Seattle, Washington, only 18% was. Southern California and Houston, Texas also had a very high prevalence of seafood fraud. 

Which seafood items are most (and least) likely to be mislabeled?

So are all fish equal when it comes to seafood fraud, or are some types worse than others?

Snapper is the most commonly mislabeled type of fish, with mislabeling occurring in 87% of samples. In fact, only 6% of red snapper was labeled correctly. If you buy snapper, you may really be receiving tilapia, Pacific ocean perch, or rockfish.

Tuna, especially white tuna, is more likely to be escolar, which can cause digestive problems if it’s eaten in too great of quantities. Toothfish is also commonly labeled as sea bass or Chilean sea bass.

In tests the FDA ran, catfish, cod, haddock, and swai were the most likely to be properly labeled. While there are plenty of rumors that scallops are one of the most commonly counterfeit seafood items, Oceana found that only 6% of scallops were mislabeled — usually confusing bay scallops and sea scallops.

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