A just-issued report shows that seafood fraud and mislabeling in New York State supermarkets may be rampant.
The investigation, which included DNA testing, found more than one in four samples purchased for the investigation was not sold under a federally-recognized market name for that species of fish, according to the report released by Attorney General Barbara D. Underwood’s office. “It’s clear that seafood fraud isn’t just a fluke – it’s rampant across New York,” Underwood said.
According to the report, “consumers think they are buying lemon sole, red snapper, or wild salmon, or any one of dozens of seafood options. But too often, they get something else entirely. They unknowingly take home a cheaper, less environmentally sustainable, or less healthy fish. It’s a bait-and-switch, which cheats consumers and violates consumer protection laws.
From late 2017 through 2018, the New York State Office of the Attorney General (“OAG”) undertook the first major government investigation in the U.S. to target seafood fraud at retail supermarket chains. OAG purchased seafood based on availability at 155 locations across 29 supermarket brands, targeting seafood falling into nine distinct categories. An academic laboratory
then identified the species using DNA testing.
“The results were disturbing,” the report continues. Key findings include:
- More than one in four (26.92%) seafood purchases with an identifiable barcode was mislabeled.1 About two-thirds of the supermarket brands reviewed had at least one instance of suspected mislabeling.
- A small subset of supermarket brands was responsible for a vastly disproportionate share of suspected mislabeling. Of the 12 chains with 10 or more samples tested, five had rates of suspected mislabeling that exceeded 50%. These five are subject to an ongoing OAG consumer fraud investigation.
- While mislabeling affected virtually every tested seafood category, there was rampant mislabeling of certain species. The results suggest that consumers who buy lemon sole, red snapper, and grouper are more likely to receive an entirely different fish. Similarly, consumers who bought what was advertised as “wild” salmon often actually received farm-raised salmon instead. Such consumers had often paid more money—on average
34% more—to avoid farm raised fish.
- The substitutes were typically cheaper, less desirable species than the desired species. Snappers sold as red snapper, for example, tended to sell for half as much when properly labeled as another type of snapper. Some substitutes (e.g., lane snapper), had higher
mercury levels or came from less sustainable fisheries than the desired species, raising consumer safety and environmental sustainability issues.
- Seafood mislabeling occurred across most regions of New York, but was most widespread downstate. New York City had a staggering mislabeling rate (42.65%), with similarly high rates of mislabeling on Long Island (40.63%) and only slightly lower in Westchester and Rockland Counties (32.43%).
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