FISHY? Genetic tests have shown that some stores are replacing
expensive seafood with cheaper versions
Kirk Moore, Staff Writer
that last meal of New Jersey flounder was so good, you're on
the lookout for those white fillets again.
But when the next batch goes into the oven, the glistening slabs
collapse into a watery, corrugated mess. What happened?
Chances are that generic flounder came from someplace else -
perhaps frozen on the far side of another ocean, then pushed
into the East Coast marketplace when supplies of fresh, locally
caught flatfish ran up against catch limits.
With the U.S. seafood market increasingly dominated by imports,
consumers will get more full disclosure in April when a federal
country-of-origin labeling law takes effect for fish sold in
supermarkets. Still, consumers will find the best way to ensure
they get the fish they pay for is to know their suppliers and
ask where the fish was caught, industry experts say.
"As a consumer, you've got to know where you product has
come from, how long has it been off the boat?" said Aaron
Robinson, seafood manager at the Wegman's supermarket in Ocean
Township (Monmouth County).
In the Wegman's fish case, fillets, steaks and shellfish carry
that information alongside the prices. It's part of an integrated
quality assurance program that starts with visits to commercial
fishing docks, said Carl Salamone, Wegman's vice president for
"Before we opened up our Princeton store, we went to Viking
Village (docks in Barnegat Light) and we were on a boat that
was packing out swordfish, talking to the captain," Salamone
said. "We use a very extensive product specification list.
Suppliers have the same specifications that our stores, our
buyers and our workers do."
The problem of seafood substitution - switching a lower-cost
species into the place of a higher-priced fish - got national
attention again when a 2004 University of North Carolina study
suggested there was widespread substitution of American red
snapper, one of the most overfished and economically prized
marine species at $12 a pound.
"Tight (fishing) restrictions may create an incentive for
seafood substitution, whereby less valuable species are mislabeled
and sold under the names of more expensive ones," wrote
marine sciences professor Peter Marko and other University of
North Carolina researchers in a July 2004 issue of the magazine
UNC graduate students purchased 22 samples of red snapper in
eight states and subjected the meats to molecular genetic analysis.
They concluded 17 samples were not red snapper at all.
The study had a margin of error of 17 percent. But the researchers
still contend their results meant anywhere from 60 percent to
94 percent of red snapper sales might be deceptive, a claim
seafood industry groups called inflated.
New Jersey consumers can choose from a plethora of both imported
and native regional fish species, and the best advice is to
know your retailers and their seafood sources, said Linda O'Dierno,
coordinator of fish and seafood development at the state Department
"Most of the products that are sold here are readily identifiable,"
But there are common problems in the national marketplace, and
"red snapper is almost always the one," she said.
"Usually if you see it (genuine red snapper) in our markets,
it's prohibitively expensive," owing to short supply and
fishing seasons in the Gulf of Mexico, O'Dierno said. "If
you see a price that's extraordinarily inexpensive, you might
wonder if it's the real thing."
Said Salamone of Wegman's, "We know red snapper is only
available the first 10 days of every month. So we cannot offer
red snapper after the 12th or 13th day of the month."
The company's product specification sheets go into details of
where the fish is brought ashore and sanitation test results
from processors, so the buyers are certain of what they're getting,
Food scientist Peggy Hsieh of Florida State University developed
molecular-level tests used to positively identify fish species,
even using samples of cooked fish. In 1995, Hsieh worked with
American Journal television producers to expose the problem
of false labeling outside of Florida.
"We found more than 50 percent of those restaurants serving
fancy red snapper dishes were substituting other species,"
Hsieh said. "Red snapper is probably the most popular fish
in Florida. When I worked for the Florida Department of Agriculture
it was really a major, major problem.
"I truly believe today this problem still exists,"
she added. "Unless the federal and state governments decide
to test more frequently, there's no way to guard against it."
O'Dierno of the New Jersey Agriculture Department said only
one species may be sold under the name red snapper, Vermillion
snapper, which has an overall red color, too, and can be difficult
for anyone but an experienced fish dealer to identify when it's
still a whole fish.
"The only real difference is the shape of the head,"
"Most supermarket workers are not adequately trained to
recognize those differences," O'Dierno added. "If
you have a haddock and the skin is on, you can tell right away
that it's haddock. Without the skin, it could be any number
of other species."
Most marine fish are the last real wildlife in most Americans'
diets. Consumers have to remember that means freshness and availability
are limited to certain times of the year, industry experts say.
"A lot of people don't understand the seasonality of these
products," O'Dierno said.
Substituting one type of fish for another - say, Pacific arrowtooth
flounder for New Jersey-caught flounder - doesn't always work
because "they behave very differently in the cooking process,"
For ardent fish enthusiasts, seasonality is part of the attraction.
At Wegman's today, "we'll be getting about 40 pounds of
British Columbia salmon," Robinson said with a gleam in
his eye. "They've had a season opening, and our buyer is
getting us some."
The country-of-origin labeling requirement was welcomed by American
catfish farmers in Southern states, who have been locked in
a trade fight with Vietnamese fish growers over labels.
"Anything that can be done to educate and inform the consumer
that there's a difference between imported and American product
will be a benefit to our domestic industry," said Hugh
Warren, executive vice president of the Catfish Farmers of America.
Cage-cultured fish, such as basa, raised in Vietnam's Mekong
Delta began capturing some of the American market from catfish
growers in the late 1990s, rising to account for 20 percent
of U.S. sales, and driving down domestic wholesale prices for
catfish to between 50 cents to 58 cents a pound - below the
cost of production for most growers, Warren said.
Even Mississippi's own riverside casino industry couldn't resist
substituting cheaper Vietnamese fish for local catfish.
"Those guys spent a tremendous amount of money trying to
position their product in the marketplace. Suddenly this stuff
is flooding in from Vietnam and taking market share," O'Dierno
The American growers used their connections in Congress to get
a rule requiring that only catfish from the Ictaluridae family,
which includes North American species but not the Vietnamese
species, could be labeled as catfish. Vietnamese fish producers
bitterly resented the American move, calling it the same kind
of protectionism by labeling as the European Union has been
accused of using against competitive American farm products.
In the past couple of years, the American catfish industry has
recovered, selling 30 million pounds at prices around 75 cents
per pound, Warren said. In addition to its defense against Asian
imports, the industry benefited from a drop in prices for soybean
and corn, the primary ingredients of catfish feed, he said.