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Fish Fraud: Something Fishy Is Happening With the Labeling of Seafood

U.S. News & World Report - Health logo U.S. News & World Report - Health 8/24/2016 Stacey Colino

© -Oxford-/iStock/Getty Images Besides being a rip-off, fish fraud at stores and restaurants could jeopardize your health.

These days, choosing fish isn't easy, whether you're buying it at the grocery store or ordering it at a restaurant. You want to select seafood that's fresh, reasonably priced, high in omega-3 fatty acids and low in mercury. After all, fish is one of the healthiest foods on the planet – it's a lean source of protein that's good for your heart and mind, experts note – which is why the updated U.S. Department of Agriculture's Dietary Guidelines encourage Americans to eat fish or seafood at least twice a week. It's a tricky balancing act, though, because at the same time, consumers are frequently warned about the potential risks of contaminants like mercury, which tends to build up especially in large predatory fish.

Purchase the best fish.: <a href="http://health.usnews.com/health-news/blogs/eat-run/2014/09/17/how-to-buy-sustainable-and-healthy-fish">Buying fish</a> can be a tricky task – it’s hard to find one that's healthy for both you and the ocean. There’s no master guide ranking fish by what's important: high omega-3s, low mercury levels and healthy environmental factors. But here are 13 menu options that meet the bar on all those measures, according to the Environmental Defense Fund's Seafood Selector and the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch programs. These choices are high in omega-3s and low in contaminants, and they're produced in a way that's friendly to their environments. How you prepare a dish will obviously determine its calorie count, so unless noted, the calories listed here are for servings of uncooked fish. 13 Best Fish: High in Omega-3s – and Environment-Friendly

Here's a shopping shocker that makes the issue even more complicated: You may not be getting the fish you're paying for at retail outlets or in restaurants. In an investigation from 2010 to 2012, Oceana, an international organization dedicated to ocean conservation, examined more than 1,200 fish samples from 64 restaurants, sushi venues and stores in 21 states throughout the U.S. and found that mislabeling occurred in 59 percent of the 46 fish types that were tested; in particular, less desirable, less expensive or more readily available fish were often swapped for grouper, cod and snapper. Holy mackerel!

Among the most common examples of fish fraud the Oceana study found: Tilapia is frequently substituted for red snapper; pangasius (Asian catfish) is being sold as Alaskan or Pacific cod or grouper; Antarctic toothfish is being swapped for sea bass; farmed Atlantic salmon is standing in for wild, king and sockeye salmon; and escolar is being sold as white tuna, according to the report. In South Florida, king mackerel – a fish that's on the Food and Drug Administration's "do not eat" list for sensitive groups such as women of reproductive age and young children because it's high in mercury – was being sold as grouper, and in New York City, tilefish – which is also on the "do not eat" list for sensitive people – was being sold as halibut and red snapper.

"It's all based on economics," notes Roger Clemens, a professor of pharmacology and pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Southern California and past president of the Institute of Food Technologists. "Many of the fish that are substituted are less expensive, so the restaurant or retailer profits from the deception."

The Best Diets Overall: U.S. News evaluated and ranked 38 diets with input from a <a href="http://health.usnews.com/best-diet/experts">panel of health experts</a>. To be top-rated, a diet had to be relatively easy to follow, nutritious, safe and effective for weight loss and preventing diabetes and heart disease. The government-endorsed Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) snagged the top spot. The 38 Best Diets Overall

Besides being a rip-off, the practice of fish fraud could cause health problems if you're exposed to contaminants, toxins or allergens in the substituted fish, Clemens says, especially if you consume that particular fish frequently. In fact, the Oceana report notes that escolar (often called butterfish), which was substituted for 84 percent of the white tuna samples that were obtained in the study, can cause "serious digestive issues" for some people if they eat more than a few ounces of it.

Fortunately, government agencies and consumer watchdog groups have caught on to these risks. "The regulatory authorities recognize fish fraud among other issues pertinent to food safety and consumer trust of the food supply," Clemens says. "Under the emerging Food Safety Modernization Act and current food safety guidelines, food traceability [being able to trace the journey of seafood from the sea to your plate] is critical for retailers and consumers alike."

In addition, DNA tests that produce faster results now are being used to allow distributors, supermarkets, restaurants, government agencies and others to accurately identify various species of both domestic and imported seafood. "Traceability and the genetic testing methods will help us," notes Barbara Rasco, director of the School of Food Science at the University of Idaho/Washington State University in Pullman, Washington, "but if people are going to intentionally cheat with what they sell, it will be an uphill battle."

The trouble is, once a fish is skinned and filleted or cooked, it can be difficult for the average consumer to identify what species it really is. That's why the best way to protect yourself from fish fraud is to ask questions: At restaurants and stores, inquire about what kind of fish it is, whether it's wild or farm-raised, and when, where and how it was caught. "Credible suppliers are key," Rasco says. "Restaurants that buy direct from fishers tend to have a better knowledge of fish and a better idea of what they have on hand." If you don't like what you're hearing, or you don't believe it, or if the answer doesn't seem to make sense, "I would order something else," Rasco says. 

Also, if the price seems too good to be true, there's a good chance you're buying a less expensive fish than the one it's being sold as. The same is true "if the color of the [fish's] flesh doesn't look right," notes registered dietitian Leslie Bonci, owner of Active Eating Advice in Pittsburgh. "The look of Alaskan king salmon is very different from Atlantic salmon. If what you're seeing is an anemic pink, king salmon is not what you're getting." When possible, buy the whole fish, which makes it harder for a seller to swap an imposter for the real thing.

A focus on faux: Vandana Sheth’s <a href="http://health.usnews.com/best-diet/vegetarian-diet">vegetarian</a> lifestyle used to represent a niche market. Now, she’s mainstream. “It used to be just one or two brands [of meat alternatives], but now … there’s aisles and aisles of them,” says the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokeswoman, who is based near Los Angeles. For the most part, that’s a good thing: <a href="http://health.usnews.com/best-diet/best-plant-based-diets">Plant-based diets</a> are the gold standard of health and environmental responsibility – and Americans are apparently eating them up. But not all meatless meats are created equal. Here’s what to know before going faux: What's Really in Those Meatless Meats?

Copyright 2016 U.S. News & World Report

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