Shrimp may be small, but they are a big business and a popular food for many Americans. In fact, America's most popular seafood is shrimp, and it is the most highly traded seafood item by value, both in the U.S. as well as around the world. In 2012, 89 percent of the shrimp consumed in the U.S. was imported. With a product that is so heavily traded comes a high risk of misrepresentation that cheats consumers, honest fishermen and others.
In a report released Thursday, Oceana found that 30 percent of 143 shrimp samples collected from restaurants and grocery stores in certain Gulf of Mexico states (Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas), New York City, Washington, D.C. and Portland, Ore. had been misrepresented — they were not advertised properly. Either they were mislabeled (one species swapped for the labeled species), or they were misleading (like a farmed shrimp labeled as "Gulf" shrimp) or there was some mixture or mystery as to what the shrimp actually was (like a bag of shrimp containing commingled or scientifically undescribed species). In fact, a number of the shrimp types we found could not be matched to any available known shrimp DNA, and were essentially genetically unknown creatures.
Misrepresented shrimp may seem like a miniscule problem, but it matters to consumers. Apart from misleading consumers, mislabeling shrimp and other seafood can be dangerous for public health. For instance, some of the mislabeled "wild-caught" shrimp in this new study could have been farmed foreign shrimp species that contain aquaculture chemicals banned from use in the U.S. Consumers may also want to avoid shrimp caught through unsustainable or destructive fishing gear, like bottom trawls, yet many countries that export shrimp to the U.S. don't have sufficient conservation measures in place to reduce the harmful impacts from these fishing methods. Seafood fraud also undercuts honest fishermen who play by the rules and can allow illegally caught fish to enter the seafood marketplace.
The report also surveyed restaurant menus and grocery store signage. Out of more than 400 shrimp products surveyed in grocery stores, 30 percent did not have country-of-origin information, 29 percent did not provide information on whether the shrimp was wild-caught or farmed, and one in five samples lacked both pieces of information. The vast majority of the over 600 restaurant menus surveyed did not have any information on the shrimp's origins. It's clear that seafood buyers are given very little information about the shrimp they purchase.
Unfortunately, these results are not surprising. Everywhere that we look for seafood fraud, we find it. These results mirror Oceana's previous work on fish mislabeling, where one-third of over 1,000 fish samples collected at the retail level from restaurants and grocery stores across the country were mislabeled according to Food and Drug Administration guidelines.
And it's not just a U.S. problem. Other recent studies in the United Kingdom and Denmark found 7 and 18 percent mislabeling rates, respectively, of species like cod and haddock. In fact, to illustrate the scope of the problem, Oceana recently compiled more than 100 studies on seafood mislabeling and species substitution from around the world and found that 100 percent of them reported some level of fraud in their findings.
Earlier this year, President Obama committed to tackling seafood fraud and illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing by establishing a task force charged with developing recommendations on combatting these issues, which are due to the president in December. One thing that could make a massive difference in increasing the transparency and accountability for seafood sold in the United States is traceability.
Tracking seafood from where it was farmed or caught to the consumer's plate is crucial for combatting seafood fraud and illegal fishing. Traceability would allow for verifying that seafood originated in a legal fishery, and that it is tracked through the entire supply chain, while providing seafood buyers with more information about their purchases. We have the technology to do this with little cost to the government and in many cases the industry is beginning to demonstrate that it can work.
The president's task force has a unique opportunity to provide recommendations to ensure that all seafood sold in the U.S. is safe, legally caught and honestly labeled. Voluntary programs like those that already exist will not be enough. We need new rules, to ensure that all seafood imported into the U.S. can be proven to have been caught legally, as well as requiring that all seafood is traceable by consumers at the point of sale. This will help make sure consumers receive more information about the origins of their food while combatting illegal fishing, which harms ocean health, coastal livelihoods and the food security of communities that depend on sustainable fisheries.
Savitz is the vice president for U.S. oceans at Oceana.