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That Fish You're Eating Isn’t What You Think it Is

And what you think it isn't could make your shorts explode.
February 26, 2013, 3:00pm
Looks like white tuna but isn't. Also can explode your rectum. Image via Three Kitcheneers

Before you stir together that next batch of delicious Tuna Helper—you know, the kind flavored with MSG, Silicon Dioxide, and ferrous sulfate—it bears consideration that the creamy “Alfredo” sauce may not be the only component that isn’t quite what it seems. Turns out that tuna may not be tuna at all. In fact, odds are it isn’t, and a lot of other fish is just as phony.

The latest disturbing news emerged a few days ago in a study by Oceana, an international ocean conservation group. Having collected more than 1,200 seafood samples from 674 retailers in 21 states, the group determined through DNA testing that a full 33 percent of the seafood was mislabeled.


Worst of all were the snapper and the tuna. A staggering 87 percent of fish sold as snapper had been mislabeled. For red snapper, only seven out of the 120 samples taken were actually red snapper. According to the report, the other 113 could have been any number of fish, including giltheaded seabream, tilapia, and white bass.

Tuna wasn’t quite as bad, but was still pretty bad. Fully 59 percent of fish labeled tuna—whether in a can, in a sushi restaurant, or at a fish market—wasn’t tuna. The most common substitution was an oily fish called escolar, aka, “butterfish,” “oilfish,” or “king tuna.” In fact, 84 percent of all fish sold as “white tuna” were escolar—which, as the full report notes, can result in serious digestive problems whenever someone eats more than a few ounces. The fish is banned in Japan and Italy.

What kind of digestive problems? How about, as one food blog recently put it, “explosive, oily, orange diarrhea”?

Geographically, some places were worse than others (see this map). In New York, 39 percent of the fish samples tested were fraudulently labeled. But that was nothing. In Austin and Houston, 49 percent were mislabeled. In Southern California, that number went up to 52 percent. It’s worth remembering that the sample size shrinks when narrowed down to the state or sub-state level. Still, 52 percent of the 121 samples taken in Southern California is bad enough to raise concern.


Problems with seafood labeling are myriad, and getting away with it is clearly quite easy. Eighty-six percent of all seafood consumed in United States, the Los Angeles Times reports, comes from another country, making it tougher to regulate. As a 2011 report by Consumer Reports notes (busy parents, note the extra scary part in parentheses at the end):

Processing at sea, which includes removing heads and guts, slows spoilage but can make species more difficult to identify, as can breading or sauces that seafood-preparation facilities might add. When sending fish and shellfish to retailers, suppliers must note their country of origin and whether they were wild or farm-raised. (Prepared fish products such as fish sticks aren't subject to that rule.)

By the time the fish gets here, Sushi restaurants are notoriously bad offenders. An earlier study by Oceana, for example, found that 87 percent of the fish they sampled from 21 different sushi restaurants was mislabeled. A Huffington Post article about mislabeled fish in New York recently noted that one possibility for some discrepancies could be the translation. Oceana concedes that some sushi chefs may honestly believe the word for escolar is “white tuna.”

What's with the glasses and beret, pal? Trying to hide
something? Image via Annoyatorium

A petition signed by more than 500 chefs and restaurateurs was sent to Congress last year asking for stricter regulations, but the proposed bill, entitled the Safety and Fraud Enforcement for Seafood Act, has stalled thus far in committee.

Regardless of the species, our fish isn’t as fresh as many of us believe either. Federal Food and Drug Administration laws specifically state that all seafood except for shellfish, fish eggs, some kinds of tuna, and fish that comes from strictly regulated fish farms, must be at frozen for 15 to 168 hours, depending on the freezing and storage temperatures. Which means that much of what we may believe is freshly-caught sushi, may really have stopped swimming over a week ago.

With so much uncertainty about our seafood, it’s no wonder we’ve seen the emergence of a popular myth about calamari. To wit, a recent segment of NPR’s “This American Life” found that many people within the American meat industry believed that some packagers were passing off pig rectum as imitation calamari.

Producers for the radio show noted that they hadn’t been able to prove that such imitation calamari actually exists. But they weren’t able to disprove it either. Given the widespread fraud we’ve seen in the fish industry otherwise, it hardly seems impossible.