More Mislabeling Raises Questions About Food Supply Chain

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • So what are we really eating? Forget just trying to decipher product labels on many prepackaged foods. What about things that seem so basic – like meat and fish?

    Well, the news has been full of stories about horsemeat in Ikea’s meatballs. Now Bloomberg Businessweek is reporting that consumers in South Africa are finding out that they’ve been eating burgers made out of donkey, sausage made out of goat and lunch meat made out of water buffalo. The country’s health department is starting an investigation after researchers found that 68 percent of meat products tests were species that were not declared on the product label.

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    And that’s not all. You may be being misguided when you select seafood (which is really sad since I just wrote a blog about a large study that links the Mediterranean diet – which means a lot of seafood – to cardiovascular health).
    The Boston Globe did a two-part series that looked at whether fish is mislabeled in restaurants. The reporters collected 76 seafood samples from 58 restaurants and markets that sold fish that had been mislabeled last year. The Globe then did DNA testing on the fish and found that 76 percent of the fish were mislabeled. This comes a year after the newspaper did an investigation across Massachusetts that found that restaurants and stores were routinely mismarking and selling cheaper and lower quality fish to unwitting customers.

    And Oceana conducted an investigation from 2010 to 2012, collecting more than 1,215 seafood samples from 674 retail outlets in 21 states. The organization ran DNA testing on the samples and found that 33 percent had been mislabeled. Their analysis found that snapper was mislabeled the most often (87 percent). “In fact, only seven of the 120 samples of red snapper purchased nationwide were actually red snapper,” the group reported. “The other 113 samples were another fish.” Tuna was mislabeled 59 percent of the time. Additionally, halibut, grouper, cod and Chilean seabass were mislabeled anywhere from 19 to 38 percent of the time. The analysis found that salmon was mislabeled seven percent of the time.

    The New York Times pointed out that there are some health issues in relation to these mislabelings. For instance, both tilapia and tilefish were falsely marked as red snapper. Tilefish is exceptionally high in mercury and has been placed by the Food and Drug Administration on a list to be avoided by women who are pregnant or nursing as well as young children. Furthermore, 94 percent of fish that is labeled as white tuna is incorrect; it’s instead snake mackerel or escolar, a fish that contains a toxin that can result in severe diarrhea.

     Oceana found that 44 percent of all retail outlets that were visited as part of the study mislabeled fish. The study found that there were strong national trends in mislabeling levels as far as organizations. Sushi restaurants were the highest at 74 percent, followed by restaurants (38 percent). Eighteen percent of grocery stores were found to mislabel fish. The researchers found that national supermarket chains had the best record for accuracy in this area.

  • On her blog Food Politics,  Dr. Marian Nestle, the renowned professor of sociology at New York University who studies about food policy, quotes from her book What to Eat, stating, “Much of this industry acts like it is virtually unregulated and as if all it cares about is selling fish as quickly as possible at as high a price as the traffic will bear.  Out of ignorance or, sometimes, unscrupulousness, the more profit-minded segments of this industry bend the rules to their own advantage any time they can get away with it.  No wonder ‘fishy’ translates as ‘suspicious.’  If you want to buy fish, you need to watch out for labels that are sometimes untruthful and often misleading.”

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    So what can you do to avoid mystery meat? One option is to buy locally, if at all possible, from vendors with you can learn more about.  Otherwise, develop a relationship with a butcher or a fishmonger at your local grocery store. Ask questions. Read labels. Beware of prepackaged foods (such as those now infamous meatballs). Instead, start buying your meat of choice and have the butcher grind it so you make your own meatballs, burgers, etc.

    Primary Sources for This Sharepost:

    Abelson, J. & Daley, B. (2012). Many Mass. restaurants still serve mislabeled fish. The Boston Globe.

    Matlack, C. (2013). Water buffalo, donkey join horse meat on the menu.

    Nestle, M. (2011). The latest fish story: this time it’s Boston-area restaurants. Food Politics blog.

    Rosenthal, E. (2012). Tests say mislabeled fish is widespread. New York Times.

    Oceana. (2013). Oceana study reveals seafood fraud nationwide.

Published On: February 27, 2013