One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Fake Fish: Selling snapper in the United States

December 6, 2012

by Maria Gould
This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Nineteen.

Comparison of rockfish (L) and red snapper (R) fillets, courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA). 


What do Nile tilapia, white bass, and Pacific Ocean perch all have in common? All three fish have been used to simulate the look, feel, and taste of red snapper.

One of the most commonly counterfeited fish, red snapper is notorious for not always being what it seems. If you think you have eaten red snapper lately, it is highly likely you were actually eating another fish instead. In a recent study of Los Angeles–based restaurants and grocery stores, the nonprofit marine advocacy group Oceana determined through DNA tests that 100% of the items labeled as “red snapper” were, in fact, misidentified. Half of the items were found to be tilapia; others were types of bass, perch, pollock, sea bream, and rockfish.

Through a complicated angle in California law, red snapper–labeling regulations actually allow for greater latitude: the law permits 13 types of Pacific rockfish to be sold as “Pacific red snapper” within the state. On the national level, FDA regulations permit only the species Lutjanus campechanus to be marketed under the name “red snapper.” As long as the fish stays
inside California, however, this policy cannot be enforced even though the 13 rockfish legalized by the state are technically in violation of federal law.

Although Oceana’s sample in this particular case was relatively small, fish fraud is widespread around the country but notably difficult to police. There are various reasons why the fraud occurs in the first place, and the issue is certainly not confined to red snapper: Many of the most commonly mislabeled fish have ended up on the Monterey Seafood Watch’s “Avoid” list to offset the effects of overfishing.

DNA tests are crucial tools in determining the extent of mislabeling. According to Oceana senior scientist Kimberly Warner, it is otherwise nearly impossible to differentiate the real thing and its fraudulent counterpart: “Some experienced fish sellers can distinguish among different fresh
fish fillets by visuals alone. Some knowledgeable people can discriminate by the taste of certain fish, particularly those not sauced but rather simply prepared. But it is hard to tell for many or most people without genetic tests.”

If the difference is undetectable, though, what could be the harm in the replacement of one fish for another? Warner cites ciguatera (fish-borne poisoning commonly associated with reef fish) as one possible risk. Mislabeling also poses a challenge to pregnant women monitoring their fish intake, as different species are linked to different health outcomes. On a fundamental level, fraud raises the question about consumers’ rights to know what they are eating and where it comes from. As Warner writes, “If the vendor lies about the species, what other lies are they telling?”

MARIA GOULD is an editor at Meatpaper and has worked for the magazine in various capacities since Issue Zero.

This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Nineteen.

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