Buyer be Aware – something stinks in the fish business


Health Watch Q&A

Q: I’m a big fan of Trader Joe’s and their frozen fish, but lately there’s been news about imported fish being toxic. Virginia, would you buy tuna from Thailand?

A: Sometimes, but eating fish from anywhere has become a risky business. Fish in the US is commonly mislabeled. Swordfish may really be shark, sole may really be tilapia, and US-labeled salmon may have been farmed in Asia. The nonprofit group Oceana says the most commonly mislabeled fish are red snapper, wild salmon, grouper and Atlantic cod. Of course if you know your fish, and buy it whole, you can at least give it a name. Maybe there’s an app for that!

According to the website Fair Warning, it’s estimated that 80% of the fish eaten by Americans is imported, and 40% of that is tainted with chemicals banned in the US. State and federal government agencies test only about 1% of imported fish for banned substances.

I look first for fish from the US because at least it probably wasn’t raised in a farm bathed in industrial waste or sewage, and the fish is less likely to have been loaded up with flouroquinolone antibiotics or malachite green.  If you’re lucky enough to live near the ocean, find a fisherman’s market with reliably labeled local fish. When I lived in Santa Barbara we would go down to the pier on Saturday morning and buy fish right off the boats. Even inland, there are reputable and conscientious fish markets, but all bets are off on fish from most restaurants, supermarkets and, sad to say, Trader Joe’s.

An article in the NY Times, Tests Reveal Mislabeling of Fish, says that a new technology known as DNA bar coding is making it easier to detect mislabeled fish, so US fish may become more reliable in the future.

For details on how to find the cleanest fish, read Oceana’s report, Bait and Switch: How seafood fraud hurts our oceans, our wallets and our health.

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