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Study Shows Rockfish Being Marketed As Albacore Tuna

When it comes to ordering fish, recent research at Humboldt State University suggests, things are not always as they seem.

Students this spring scoured conventional supermarkets, natural food stores and sushi restaurants in the Eureka and Arcata area to gather samples of seafood for genetic analysis. When the data was in, and the numbers were crunched, they found that in about one-third of the cases they didn’t get the fish that was advertised.

Most of the time, these were commonly mislabeled items -- and apparently quite innocent. But in a handful of cases, fish or seafood was just not what it was labeled.

”The mislabeling kind of varies in terms of how egregious it is,” said HSU fisheries professor Andrew Kinziger.

Teaching associate Tyler McCraney led the research.

The group surveyed four conventional grocery stores, three natural food stores and four sushi restaurants. Out of 94 samples taken, 29 were mislabeled, the project found. A consistent theme was that rockfish were mislabeled red snapper. It may seem like a technicality, but the fish would have been labeled correctly as Pacific red snapper, or as rockfish, as the class found most natural food markets were wont to do.

Often, overfished species of rockfish are sold as red snapper, too, according to a 2008 study by Stanford University's Department of Biological Sciences. That study suggested that allowing all rockfish species to be labeled red snapper compromises the consumer's ability to make an informed choice.

Fish is a particularly tricky product, and even the U.S. Food and Drug Administration guidelines are not overly helpful in showing how fish should be labeled. It’s a lot different than chicken, or beef or pork, which just about anyone can tell apart.

”If you buy a chicken, you know it’s a chicken,” Kinziger said.

But if the snapper label can be forgiven, other samples could certainly raise eyebrows. At one natural food market, Dover sole was labeled Monterey sole -- a fictitious name. At another supermarket, rockfish was labeled wild perch.

”It’s kind of like putting a coat of paint on an old rust bucket,” Kinziger said.

At a sushi restaurant, rockfish was being billed as albacore tuna, and consumers were apparently getting Atlantic herring roe instead of flying fish roe as listed on the menu.

It’s uncertain what’s intentional and what’s not in these cases, Kinziger said, or where the mislabeling occurred. A restaurant could be sold the product already mislabeled, or a supplier could even get a mislabeled product from a processor.

In some cases, mislabeling can have fisheries implications. Two samples of a fish labeled true cod were taken from a supermarket and a natural food store. The analysis showed that the fish was Atlantic cod, a struggling species.

On the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch list, which looks to inform consumers what fish are being sustainably harvested and which are not, Atlantic cod is a species to “avoid.” True cod -- its proper name is Pacific cod -- is listed as “best choice.” Lists like that are a promising strategy to prevent overfishing through consumer choices, McCraney said.

”It’s an awareness thing,” McCraney said.

DNA tests can’t always discern what you’re getting. Samples must be fresh, and cooking and marinating can prevent absolute results. For example, two fish samples billed as mackerel at sushi restaurants were petrale sole and tillapia. Their DNA had been degraded by a vinegar marinade, however, and the results were inconclusive.

McCraney said the point of the study isn’t to hammer markets or restaurants, but instead to point out that labeling could be done more carefully, especially with the increased call for organic and sustainably produced foods.