National Geographic
Menu

Labeling & Local Seafood

By Sean Dixon, Co-Founder, Village Fishmonger NYC

Recently highlighted in a great Ocean Views post by Brian Howard, an Atlantic article, and the New York Times, a report by ocean advocacy organization Oceana once again exposed a fatal flaw in the U.S.’s seafood economy: mislabeling.

Labels

In the world of seafood, mislabeling generally means one of two things:

First, it could mean that the label details are wrong – perhaps the method of capture (trawler or longliner) was misstated, or perhaps whether the fish was farm-raised or wild-caught.

Second, it could mean that the label says the fish is one species when it is really another (serving fluke when the label says halibut).

Mislabel: verb (used with object) – to label wrongly, incorrectly, or misleadingly.

According to the Oceana report, which focused on the latter form of mislabeling (putting the wrong name on a label – not just confusing the catch details), one-third of all seafood was mislabeled. For some species, this rate is even higher – Oceana notes that “only seven of the 120 samples of red snapper purchased nationwide were actually red snapper.”

This nation-wide assessment was an eye-opening look at the state of seafood sales. News of the report crisscrossed the blogosphere, most of the nation’s print media, and broadcast outlets along the coasts.

Seafood on sale in Hong Kong, without labels of any kind (Photo: S. Dixon)

Seafood on sale in Hong Kong, without labels of any kind (Photo: S. Dixon)

To counter this grim outlook, consumers have a simple, nascent, and, in the right places, accessible solution: local fisheries.

Local

Here at Village Fishmonger NYC, a New York City-based community supported fishery (a “CSF”) , we wondered how our city fared.

In NYC, Oceana noted that “over 94% of tuna and more than three quarters of sushi samples” were mislabeled. Importantly, “Small markets had appreciably higher fraud levels (40 percent) than national grocery store chains (12 percent),” which disturbed the Oceana research team because “of how many New Yorkers rely on their neighborhood markets to buy their groceries.”

According to Oceana, seafood should be traceable (the fish’s landed data – including name, date, location – should follow that fish), labels should be thoroughly detailed, and more enforcement needs to happen nationwide – laudable goals for any food system.

Local fisheries and connections to local fishermen go a long way to achieving these goals. If you’re buying direct from a fisherman (through a local CSF or at a green market):

  1. …you’ll often only get what’s fresh and in season;
  2. …you’re likely going to be able to talk to the fisherman directly about the fish, avoiding the need to rely on label details like method of capture;
  3. …you’re cutting out several steps of the supply chain, and avoiding any imported seafood – avoiding many of the problem areas that Oceana says lead to mislabeling in the first place; and
  4. …you’re helping a local fisherman sell at (most likely) a higher price per pound than a haul would get on the open market, where each pound of local seafood is competing against mislabeled fish from around the world – which encourages the fishermen to bring more catch direct-to-consumer.

In short, you’re avoiding the pitfalls of big-business seafood.

A Village Fishmonger CSF share – 2 lbs of Golden Tilefish labeled with dock name and location caught.  Village Fishmonger NYC emails to members each week also highlight the boat and captain who caught the fish. (Photo: S. Dixon).

A Village Fishmonger CSF share – 2 lbs of Golden Tilefish labeled with dock name and location caught. Village Fishmonger NYC emails to members each week also highlight the boat and captain who caught the fish. (Photo: S. Dixon).

Mislabeling, Oceana also notes, can be potentially unsafe for consumer health.  For example, in NYC, Oceana noted that “one of the most egregious swaps” occurred – tilefish was sold as red snapper.  This concerns Oceana because tilefish are potentially high in mercury, and therefore some people shouldn’t eat it.  This is an entirely valid point – if something is dangerous, consumers should know what they’re ordering.

Again, local seafood to the rescue!

In the Mid Atlantic Ocean, unlike the Gulf of Mexico or the South Atlantic, tilefish do not present a mercury risk (see NOAA’s Fishwatch.gov Tilefish page).  For New Yorkers, local tilefish (from New Jersey and New York docks) is safe to eat – no matter what it’s called.

Labels or Local?

What’s the take-home message from this “Label-gate”? Do we fight for better label systems – with barcodes and international databases – or return to local, trustworthy fisheries?  Both.

For now, big-box retailers won’t be able to cut out all middlemen, nor sell only fresh, whole fish from local oceans – or at least they’re not  all trying to.  For those markets, traceability and accountability are required to protect the value of our fishermen’s catch and the U.S. consumer’s health.  This latest expose does a great job of highlighting this fact.

In the interim, however, buying local seafood can help consumers hedge their bets, and more likely end up with a safe, properly described, product.

No one benefits from a mislabeled fish – not the fishermen, not the consumer, and not the fish.  Until a system is in place to help you know for sure you’re not  leaving dinner subject to the whims of the fishy side of fishmongering, be a savvy seafood consumer and  stick to local, fresh fish from sources you trust.