News & Politics

The FDA Is Cracking Down on Fish Fraud

A new method of identifying fish aims to protect against mislabeled fish.

The Food and Drug Administration is taking steps to help consumers better know the exact identity of the fish they eat. Not name, date, and serial number, but pretty close. The new tool in its arsenal of weapons against fish fraud is DNA barcoding. The agency is installing sequencing equipment initially in nine of its major laboratories across the country, including one in the Washington area, and will eventually have the equipment in a dozen labs. These facilities will assess the DNA of at least 100 species of fish, making sure that tuna and snapper and grouper are just that and not some cheap—and potentially poisonous—substitute.

According to Douglas Karas of the FDA, this new technology, which went into use this month, is an opportunity for the agency to “put our enforcement muscle to work. What we hope is that greater enforcement will lead to greater compliance among people who aren’t doing it now.”

Karas says it’s tough to pinpoint the exact link in the chain where the fraud happens. It can be at any stage—the fisherman, the processor, the distributor, the wholesaler, the market, or even the restaurant. Is it greed, or ignorance, or both? “When the fish is first mislabeled, it is someone making a conscious choice. Often it is economically driven to avoid tariffs and to sell a cheaper species of fish.”

The consumer plays an important role in the process. “Much of the data that the FDA has on seafood substitution comes from consumer complaints, so it is primarily from the retail level,” Karas says.

If you think it can’t happen to you, the Boston Globe recently conducted a five-month study of fish served in restaurants, markets, and stores across Massachusetts. They collected 183 samples. Nearly half were mislabeled. Several years ago, a Chicago couple became seriously ill after they ate poison pufferfish that had been labeled as monkfish. Karas says this kind of incident is at the heart of what the FDA want to prevent.

The sequencing machines are expensive—published estimates are $150,000—and Karas says the lab analysis costs about $10 to 15 a fish. Most of the species will be screened at the “last stage before the consumer,” he adds. Eventually this technology could be in place at the supermarket. “There’s nothing that would preclude someone in the private sector who wants to test their seafood from doing it now. We can’t mandate that. It’s up to someone in the industry to make that decision.”

Perhaps it won’t be long before we order our fish not only by the pound but with its DNA certificate, too.