Seafood lovers, beware: Taking a trip to your local fish market may be a more complicated endeavor than you thought.
Both catching and eating fish have sparked concerns in recent years over everything from the environmental impacts of fishing to the safety of the seafood consumers are eating. Another rising issue is the threat of seafood fraud, which is when one type of fish is sold under another, often more expensive, fish’s name. A 2012-2013 investigation by the Food and Drug Administration tested fish at the point of wholesale and found that 15 percent of those tested were mislabeled.
Federal officials are hoping to crack down on this fishy labeling. In fact, last year the White House established a presidential task force charged with establishing a framework to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, as well as seafood fraud. While many activists are simply calling for better enforcement of the regulations already in place for the catching and selling of fish, at least one organization now says we need to go even farther.
A new report released Wednesday by Oceana, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the world’s oceans, endorses a “one name, one fish” policy, which would require species-specific labeling of seafood at all points along the supply chain, from the fishing boat to the dinner table. Currently, U.S. regulations often only require a fish to be labeled with its market name, which is designated by the FDA’s seafood list.
As you may have gathered, the whole fish naming game quickly gets pretty complicated. We all know what scientific names are — two words in Latin. These are the same in all languages, and thus can identify a species without risk of confusion. But there are two other naming approaches — using the FDA’s market names and using “common names.”
Common names still refer to a single species, but they can carry the risk of confusion, as sometimes a fish goes by different common names in different locations — for example, “mahi-mahi,” “dolphinfish” and “dorado” are all common names for the same species. FDA-supported “market names,” meanwhile, are sometimes the same as a fish’s common name, but other times are simplified down and serve as a kind of umbrella for multiple species. For example, the market name “grouper” can be used for any of 64 species of fish.
No wonder, then, that buyers often don’t know exactly what species of fish they’re getting — a situation that might lead them to overpay, or even unknowingly consume an endangered species. While scientific names are usually required when a fish is first caught or harvested, these names are sometimes dropped in favor of the fish’s market name by the time it gets to a processor or wholesaler, says Kimberly Warner, a senior scientist with Oceana and one of the report’s authors. And fish sold at the consumer level, in markets or restaurants, is generally listed by its market name.
Oceana wants the presidential task force to recommend the use of a fish’s scientific name, which is universally recognized around the world, at all points in the supply chain “for documentation and traceability purposes.” The group also argues that fish being sold to consumers (at restaurants or grocery stores, for example) should be labeled with either their scientific names or their more recognizable (but still species-specific) common names, such as “black grouper” instead of just “grouper.”
Changing these regulations, the report argues, would cut down on confusion and reduce the risk of mislabeling. More important, the report claims that using scientific names can help improve the traceability of seafood, making it easier for governments to improve food safety, protect endangered species, enforce fisheries laws and curb seafood fraud.
These are some of the major goals of the presidential task force, which released an action plan earlier this year with recommendations to the president on how to tackle illegal or unregulated fishing and fraud. The action plan is open to a public comment period, which will close at the end of July, after which the federal government will write the action plan into a rule that should go into effect late next year.
The tentative recommendations stress the importance of enforcing existing regulations but include a brief mention of the importance of clear labeling laws, stating, “Standardizing rules across the U.S. government concerning how to properly identify a seafood product’s species, common name and origin would better support detection and enforcement efforts to combat [illegal, unregulated and unreported] fishing and seafood fraud.”
Oceana isn’t the only organization that supports the use of scientific names as part of the proposed rule. “We support the administration’s efforts to create a robust seafood traceability program so that businesses and consumers know what they’re buying when they shop,” says Margaret Spring, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s vice president of conservation and science and chief conservation officer. “Consistent use of the scientific name for each species throughout the supply chain is an important first step.”
Calling for the use of scientific names during catch, processing and wholesale is one thing. But changing the labels used for regular consumers might be a more controversial move. On the one hand, Oceana argues that labeling seafood more specifically for consumers can help people choose fish that are more sustainably harvested or better for their health. For example, the report claims, some species of mackerel, such as king mackerel, have higher levels of mercury than others. But multiple species, including king mackerel, can all be served under the market name “Spanish mackerel,” making it difficult for people to make the healthiest purchases.
On the other hand, not everyone agrees that changing labels at the consumer level is a good idea. The National Fisheries Institute (NFI), a trade group representing the seafood industry, supports the use of scientific names throughout most of the seafood supply chain for “traceability purposes,” but believes market names should still be used for consumer labeling, says Gavin Gibbons, the NFI’s vice president of communications.
Common names are confusing because they can differ from place to place, Gibbons says. And while scientific names mean the same thing everywhere, most consumers aren’t familiar with them. This means consumers may not make different choices when presented with species-specific labeling.
Warner counters that educational programs and sustainable seafood lists, such as the one maintained by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, can help teach people to make healthier and more environmentally sound seafood purchases.
When it comes to combating seafood fraud, Gibbons says changing the way we label fish for consumers will make no difference. When fraud happens, he says, it’s often an outright lie about an entire category of fish — for example, if a restaurant were to pass off a tilapia as a more expensive snapper. Requiring more specific names on menus and grocery store shelves won’t do much to stop that kind of deception.
These aren’t new criticisms. Last year, a bill was introduced in California that would have required all seafood sold in the state to be labeled with its common name in addition to its market name in an effort to combat seafood fraud. Opponents argued that it would cause confusion among consumers without really doing much to cut down on fraud, and California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) ultimately vetoed the bill.
Whether changes in labeling laws become a federal priority — particularly as the government moves forward with its action plan on illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and seafood fraud — remains to be seen. Clearly, problems still exist with seafood labeling that need to be addressed. Gibbons says the NFI hopes for a “focus on enforcement [of existing regulations], as opposed to focusing on new rules and regulations that would be duplicative.”
At Oceana, though, Warner maintains that a “one fish, one name” policy could be a game-changer. Since the United States is one of the highest importers of seafood in the world, requiring more transparency in labeling could inspire other countries to do the same, according to Oceana’s report.
“Requiring a single name to follow seafood through the very complex and long supply chain is of utmost importance,” Warner says.