Hold the Lox–That Salmon You Bought May Not Be What They Say It Is

Photo: Wikipedia

Fraudulent fish is a more common problem than most people realize.  A lawsuit brought by the Organic Consumers Association alleges that fish distributors Mowi Ducktrap and Mowi USA engage in deceptive marketing of smoked salmon sold under the brand Ducktrap River of Maine. Apparently, this brand is sold as “sustainable salmon from Maine” but it was actually farm-raised salmon from Europe that is given antibiotics including oxytetracycline and a formaldehyde-based disinfectant and bleach, according to the complaint.  This fraudulent marketing is not just a one-off.  In fact, last month, research by scientists at the University of North Carolina published in the journal PLOS ONE, found that “34% of 106 shrimp sold as local by 60 vendors across North Carolina was mislabeled.”

Why This Matters:  Many people are trying to cut back on meat — particularly during the COVID pandemic, when meatpacking plants closed, or worse, kept operating despite widespread transmission of the disease among workers at those facilities.  Seafood is a supposedly healthy alternative to meat, but not if it is full of antibiotics and other chemicals. Unfortunately, there is little detection and enforcement of violations like these.

The Lawsuits

According to The Counter, another similar lawsuit filed last June by animal rights advocacy group Animal Outlook against Cooke Aquaculture and its True North brand alleges that the company’s claims that its fish are grown in “sustainable” aquaculture systems amount to false advertising.  The catch is that there is no government-mandated definition of what can be called “natural” or “sustainable” on food packaging. And even its “origin” can be claimed to be “from Maine”– as long as it is not being sold raw or unprocessed, which very little fish is in the U.S.  Thus, as The Counter explains, if “a fish was farmed in Canada and shipped to a smokehouse in Maine, it really is ‘from Maine,’ in the eyes of U.S. regulators.”  Atlantic salmon in Maine are an endangered species — the cannot be caught or sold commercially.

In July, the Food and Drug Administration published a Compliance Policy Guide (CPG),  on the “Use of The Seafood List to Determine Acceptable Seafood Names,” which provides “acceptable market names for domestic and imported vertebrate and invertebrate seafood sold in interstate commerce” in an effort to “reduce or eliminate mislabeled and misbranded products in the marketplace.”  But these companies have figured out a way to get around the guidance, which is why the Organic Consumers Association alleges false advertising — “because the marketing terms don’t match what consumers think they mean.”

North Carolina And More

In North Carolina, researchers found that a third of the shrimp sold as “local” was actually “whiteleg shrimp, an imported and globally farmed species native to the eastern Pacific.”  Similar research in North Carolina, which was published in the journal PeerJ, found that out of  90 % of the samples of red snapper (a frequently mislabeled fish) that they gathered from restaurants, markets, and grocery stores across the state were mislabeled.  The NGO Oceana conducted a similar study nationwide last year.  They found, according to CNN, that DNA tests showed that about 21% of the fish researchers sampled was not what it was called on the label or menu.  Oceana tested more than 400 samples from 277 locations in 24 states and in the District of Columbia, showing that the problem is widespread.

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