Pregnant women and parents of small children seeking to meet minimum dietary recommendations for fish and other seafood should know how to recognize and protect themselves from seafood fraud.
The substitution and mislabeling of seafood is even more concerning since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a new recommendation earlier this week that pregnant and breastfeeding women, women who may become pregnant, and young children eat more fish.
“For years many women have limited or avoided eating fish during pregnancy or feeding fish to their young children,” said Stephen Ostroff, M.D., the FDA’s acting chief scientist in a release. “But emerging science now tells us that limiting or avoiding fish during pregnancy and early childhood can mean missing out on important nutrients that can have a positive impact on growth and development as well as on general health.”
The new recommendation is for these groups of people to eat 2-3 servings of seafood per week and that it should come from a variety of low-mercury sources such as salmon, shrimp, pollock, light canned tuna, tilapia, catfish and cod. For those women, the total amount should be at least 8 ounces, but no more than 12 ounces. The portion size for children should be appropriate for the child’s age and caloric needs. Raw and undercooked fish and other seafood should be avoided.
Fish to avoid include tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico, shark, swordfish and king mackerel. See how your favorite seafood ranks for mercury content and beneficial omega-3 fatty acids.
Now that these women know what kind and the amount seafood they and their children should eat, how do they ensure that seafood is exactly what the package labeling or menu says? Or where it originated?
It turns out that seafood fraud is common. Sometimes it is the result of misinformation or misunderstanding. But increasingly it is blatant deception to hide the origin or species of seafood. Once fish are skinned and filleted, it can be difficult to identify what kind it actually is. This can lead to a “bait and switch” in which a similar tasting, cheaper fish is labeled as a more expensive one. Or in a restaurant setting, a less expensive fish is substituted for that expensive fish on the menu.
Farm raised fish may be labeled as wild caught, commanding a higher price.
Seafood fraud also occurs to hide the use of toxic fish, protected species, or illegally obtained fish.
According to Oceana, recent studies showed that certain fish may be mislabeled as often as 25%-70% of the time. Some fish are more likely to be fraudulent, including wild salmon, grouper, red snapper and Atlantic cod.
One way to ensure you are getting what you pay for is to buy whole fish with the head and skin instead of fillets. It is also important to ask the the fishmonger or restaurant server these questions:
- What species of fish is this?
- Was it previously frozen?
- Is this fish wild caught or farm-raised?
- Where was it caught?
- How was it caught?
- When was it caught?
- Is this seafood traceable? Technology has not left the seafood industry behind. Some seafood companies, markets and restaurants use seafood traceability technology to monitor origin, transport route, and even temperature.
Until greater consumer protections are in place market-wide, the best way avoid seafood fraud is to become an informed, vigilant consumer. If your seafood market, grocery store or restaurant cannot answer your questions about the seafood, it may be wiser to choose another food option or go elsewhere.
The FDA and EPA made this decision, urging pregnant women, nursing mothers and kids eat more seafood in a Consumer Update, after reviewing research data compiled over the last decade that showed a large percentage of pregnant women ate little or no fish at all. The previous recommendation in 2004 advised them to eat up to 12 ounces of lower mercury fish per week, but did not include a minimum amount to eat.
“Eating fish with lower levels of mercury provides numerous health and dietary benefits,” said Nancy Stoner, the EPA’s acting assistant administrator for the Office of Water. “This updated advice will help pregnant women and mothers make informed decisions about the right amount and right kinds of fish to eat during important times in their lives and their children’s lives.”
The new dietary recommendations are only a draft. The advice will become final only after the FDA and EPA consider public comments and review results from a series of focus groups.