The FDA’s Investigation into Seafood Mislabeling

Created on Wednesday, 26 November 2014

By: Alanna Gisondo

Most of us who work in the seafood sector are well aware that seafood fraud and mislabeling are two issues that have been commanding a lot of attention lately. In the past several years, we’ve seen investigative reports and academic studies address fraudulent seafood labeling in the U.S. marketplace and estimate rates at which it is occurring in retail stores and restaurants across the country.

So much attention in fact, President Obama recently issued a Presidential Memorandum that established a Presidential Task Force on Combatting Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing and Seafood Fraud.

All this attention around seafood mislabeling begs the question, “How much of our seafood is labeled correctly?

It’s a question that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) set out to answer when they launched an investigation into seafood mislabeling back in 2012. The two-year extensive analysis included 700 DNA samples collected from the wholesale distribution chain (prior to retailers) across 14 states, and targeted seafood that is most often suspected of being mislabeled.  And now, the results are in.

The FDA found that 85% of the seafood it tested was labeled correctly. What’s more, the FDA also found that mislabeling occurred most often in snappers and groupers, two species that constitute less than 2% of total seafood sales in the U.S. This mislabeling rate is lower than other mislabeling studies, which could be attributed to the sampling location of the wholesale distribution chain before the retailer. In studies by Oceana, mislabeling percentages were 18% at retail, 38% at restaurants, and 74% at sushi venues (though sample sizes for each differed). This may indicate that mislabeling is happening more frequently after the wholesale distribution chain and warrants further study.

The FDA’s recent findings provide additional insight into a confusing and frequently debated seafood issue, and indicate that seafood mislabeling is likely the most problematic within specific species groups of seafood (e.g. the snapper & grouper complexes), which other mislabeling studies have also found. With these new statistics, seafood businesses have a better understanding of the scope of the problem, where along the supply chain mislabeling is likely to occur, and which species complexes are most susceptible to mislabeling.

While the FDA’s study is encouraging, it does not mean that seafood mislabeling is no longer a serious problem. Seafood mislabeling is often associated with food safety and public health concerns, continues to generate media coverage, and poses serious challenges for businesses in meeting sustainable seafood policies and commitments.

The good news is that there is a suite of tools that can help to identify and reduce the risk of buying and selling mislabeled seafood. Businesses can help to ensure that products aren’t mislabeled by reviewing and improving their electronic data systems, verifying product claims via paper audits (aka tracebacks), conducting DNA testing of products of high-risk products, and implementing robust traceability policies that are communicated throughout the supply chain. Looking to different commodities –such as fair trade coffee and certified natural products– is also helpful in understanding how other sectors have innovated solutions to their own labeling challenges.

You can read more about the FDA study here.