The fish you buy at the grocery store may not be what you think it is. According to one estimate, nearly 40% of the seafood sold in New York City is mislabeled. This surprisingly common practice means big problems for people with food allergies.

Researchers from Oceana recently published a report after conducting DNA testing on 142 seafood samples purchased at New York City supermarkets, sushi bars, and restaurants. They concluded:

“Recent testing has revealed that dishonest labeling and fraudulent seafood substitution for certain species is rampant and widespread.”

For example, fish sold as red snapper may actually be yellowtail snapper, ocean perch, tilapia, tilefish, or white bass, and a “king salmon” may actually be a rainbow trout. Oceana has previously conducted similar studies in other cities, finding fish mislabeling rates as high as 48% in Boston and 55% in Los Angeles.

Mislabeling poses serious health concerns

These findings are especially troubling because seafood is one of the most common food allergens. Many seafood allergies are species-specific, making it critical that the fish be labeled correctly.

Dr. David Fleischer, an associate professor of pediatric allergy and immunology at National Jewish Health in Denver, explains:

“If [a person] is not allergic to the fish they think they are getting, and that fish is substituted with one to which they are allergic, they obviously could have a serious allergic reaction.”

In an October 2012 letter to the FDA, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-California) wrote: “Seafood fraud is not only deceptive marketing, but it can also pose serious health concerns, particularly for pregnant women seeking to limit exposure to heavy metals or individuals with serious allergies to certain types of fish.”

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