Summary of the Oceana Report on Seafood Mislabeling in the US

Created on Wednesday, 06 March 2013

oceana-logo1FishWise read the recent Oceana study on nationwide seafood fraud and compiled the highlights of the 70-page report for you here. In the bullet points following each seafood summary, we provide suggestions on how seafood vendors can improve their sourcing and traceability to ensure they are not receiving this mislabeled product.


Oceana staff and supporters purchased 1,247 samples from 674 retail venues (restaurant, grocery, sushi) in metropolitan areas of 21 states. DNA testing was used to resolve the species type of each seafood sample and was then compared to the name on the label/menu for the item. The product was considered to be mislabeled if the name it was marketed under did not match the species name on the FDA Seafood Name list.

The study sampled 46 species of fish, though it focused on salmon, snapper, cod, tuna, sole, halibut and grouper, which made up 80% of the samples. These fish types were sampled more as they are known to be highly mislabeled.


1.Mislabeling rates differed by retail type. Grocery had 18% mislabeling of seafood sampled, restaurants 38% and sushi 74%. It is unknown where these substitutions occurred in the supply chain.

2.Most frequently mislabeled seafood in grocery & seafood markets were: snapper, grouper and cod. 

3.Most frequently mislabeled seafood in restaurants were: snapper, cod, Chilean seabass and grouper.



Snapper was mislabeled in many ways. Some snapper mislabeling appears as a more benign substitution of one species of snapper for another. However, more than 75% of the substitution was of a fish not even from the snapper family (Lutjanidae). The most common substitution in this case were rockfish on the west coast and tilapia in sushi venues.


  • If you sell snapper on the west coast — review the FDA Seafood Name list to ensure you are labeling true snapper and rockfish correctly. With so many species of snapper and rockfish, this can be difficult.
  • If you are receiving snapper fillets (not as easily identified as whole fish), ask your vendor the species of snapper and the catch location & gear type used to harvest the product. This will help to communicate that you want product information to be transparent and that you are checking to ensure you are receiving the product you ordered.



‘White tuna’ was substituted for escolar in a great majority of samples (84%). This poses a health concern as escolar contains a toxin that can cause gastrointestinal problems if eaten in quantities greater than a few ounces. ‘White tuna’ is actually not an acceptable market name for any fresh or frozen tuna, and can only be used with canned tuna.

  • If selling fresh and frozen tuna consult the FDA Seafood List for species that can be sold as tuna, bonito, or amberjack.
  • Purchase tuna only from reputable suppliers. Request source information about the tuna to help reassure that substitutions are not happening.
  • To take things a step further, take DNA samples of the tuna you receive and send them to companies that will test the species for you. See company recommendations in the FishWise traceability white paper. Communicate the results to your customers as a competitive advantage.



As this is the second most consumed fish in the U.S., a significant portion of the sampling effort focused on salmon. Salmon mislabeling was higher in restaurants (20%) and sushi venues (18%) than in grocery (5%). ‘Wild salmon’ was mislabeled 27% of the time and was actually farmed salmon. Conversely, sockeye salmon was infrequently mislabeled.

  • Purchase salmon only from reputable suppliers. Request source information about the salmon to help reassure that substitutions are not happening.
  • Market the source information to consumers — such as the source fishery or river. This will help communicate to customers that you have done your due diligence in ensuring your product is accurately labeled.



More than 1 in 4 cod samples were mislabeled. Again, grocery had lower mislabeling rates than restaurants. A common substitution was labeling Pacific cod as Atlantic or vice versa. After this, other whitefish — wild and farmed — were substituted, albeit less often, for cod.


Similar to cod, grouper had a 1 in 4 mislabeling rate. Testing revealed king mackerel, Pangasius, perch, weakfish, bream and other groupers being sold incorrectly as grouper.

Chilean seabass

Eight of 21 samples of Chilean seabass were mislabeled, and opposite of most other mislabeling, rates were higher in grocery than restaurants. Interestingly, this substitution was all about naming. Technically, only the Patagonian toothfish species (Dissostichus eleginoides) can be sold as Patagonian toothfish or Chilean seabass. The Antarctic species (Dissostichus mawsoni) CANNOT be sold as Chilean seabass and must be sold as toothfish. Every instance of mislabeling in this study was from companies selling the Antarctic species as Chilean seabass, when it should have been sold as toothfish. Additionally, it is important to not label Patagonian toothfish only as ‘seabass’ as this is also mislabeling — it must be labeled as ‘Chilean seabass.’


One in 5 halibut samples were mislabeled. Sushi mislabeling was 100% for halibut, 21% for restaurants, and 4% for grocery. Most substitution was for other types of halibut as only true Pacific and Atlantic halibut can be sold as ‘halibut.’ The fish often called California halibut (Paralichthys californicus) on the west coast must be labeled as ‘flounder’ per the FDA, which led to some of the mislabeling.


Lemon sole was mislabeled the most of all sole and dover sole was only mislabeled once. Fish sold as ‘sole’ were only mislabeled 9% of the time, which makes sense as 32 species can be marketed as ‘sole’ per the FDA Seafood List.


Sushi venues mislabeled yellowtail or hamachi 100% of the time. This is because the species, Seriola quinqueradiata, cannot be sold as yellowtail per the FDA and must instead be labeled ‘amberjack.’

Other fishes to keep an eye on that were mislabeled in this study were orange roughy, ono, butterfish, sanddab, and rockfish. In the small amount of sampling in this study, mahi mahi, swordfish, tilapia, and farmed Atlantic salmon were accurately labeled.

To learn more about ways to improve seafood traceability in your supply chain, download the FishWise white paper on seafood traceability.

Click here to download the original Oceana report.