Viewpoints: Better labels can stop seafood fraud

How confident are you that the seafood you buy is really what you get?

I was appalled to see seafood mislabeling firsthand when the fish I purchased from a vendor was not what I ordered. Seafood fraud can appear in many different forms – intentionally swapping one species for a completely different species, or simply not disclosing what species of fish is being sold. It is a nationwide problem, with California ranking as a top offender. What concerns me is the fact that seafood fraud rips off everyone: unknowing consumers, responsible fishermen and honest businesses.

In many California sushi restaurants, that “white tuna” in your sushi roll is not actually albacore tuna; it’s escolar, a snake-mackerel species a bit lighter in color. Disturbingly, escolar can cause gastrointestinal problems and cheats consumers who are paying higher prices for a far inferior product. I have even seen some restaurants offer escolar on their menu advertised as Hawaiian butterfish. This type of labeling is blatantly misleading.

Seafood fraud hurts our beautiful oceans as well. If consumers are not given the information they need on what species the fish is and if it was caught in the wild or farm-raised, they are not able to make a conscientious decision about how their purchase is affecting our fisheries and ocean health. For example, labeling a filet as “salmon” does not provide the consumer with adequate information to know if it is sustainable Chinook salmon caught by responsible California fishermen or the farmed Atlantic salmon produced in foreign countries, where fish farming degrades the environment with pollution, feed use and spread of disease to wild fish stocks.

These examples are just the tip of the iceberg. Consumers should be able to enjoy the diverse selection of seafood California has to offer with the peace of mind that they are eating exactly what they ordered. So how do we make that happen?

There is a bill on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk that would ensure that the consumer is provided with accurate and transparent information about the seafood they are buying. Senate Bill 1138 would require that all seafood sold in California be labeled with the common name of the species. For example, if you order tuna, you will learn whether it is albacore tuna, bigeye tuna or yellowfin tuna. If you buy salmon, you will know if it is coho salmon, sockeye salmon, Chinook salmon or Atlantic salmon. It’s upfront and simple.

I have been in the retail food industry for 31 years and I have seen the progression of requirements at the federal level to provide consumers with more information about the food they purchase. In the late 1990s, there was a push to provide safe handling statements on all meat, poultry and eggs to protect consumers from food-borne illnesses. While there was pushback from some in the industry, the implementation of those safe handling stickers was fairly seamless.

Then came country-of-origin labeling, which requires products to specify where the food product came from. Again there was resistance to this idea from some of the industry, but implementation of these standards was fairly smooth, and now consumers know exactly where their food originates. Requiring that seafood labels contain the common name of fish and shellfish is the next step in the natural progression of providing transparency to consumers.

If Gov. Brown signs SB 1138 into law, California will be the first state in the nation to take the initiative to tell consumers exactly what species of fish they are getting, and nip seafood fraud in the bud. As Californians, let’s lead.