Seafood Shopping

What You Need To Know When Buying Fish

You’re conscious about your health and including fish in your diet is important to you. With all of the brands and certifications in grocery stores across the country, shopping for seafood can be daunting. Your choice would be a lot easier if you knew the origin of the fish and how it was farmed or caught. Granted, you’re concerned about the environment and want to buy eco-friendly food, but you also want to make sure you’re getting what you’ve been promised. When seafood labels don’t provide enough information, knowing what questions to ask is the key.

There is no universal seafood labeling system across fish markets, grocery stores, and/or restaurants, so diligence on your part is required. The more questions you ask at the fish counter, the more retailers will recognize the need to provide their customers with better information.

Here are some questions to ask when seafood labels don’t provide enough information:

  • From what country did this fish originate?
  • Was this fish farm-raised or wild-caught?
  • If this was a farm-raised fish, was it raised in a tank, pond, or a polluting open net pen?
  • If this was a wild-caught fish, was it caught by pole? Or were long lines used (which often catch unwanted “bycatch”)?
  • Is this fish a healthy and abundant species, or one that’s vulnerable to overfishing?
  • If this is a species that’s vulnerable to overfishing, are there any recommended eco-friendly alternatives?
  • Is this fish really a (grouper, wild salmon, red snapper, etc.)? These species are frequently candidates for fish fraud.

Armed with these questions, you’ll be one step ahead; however you’re unlikely to get answers for most questions. The best way to know you’re getting what you’ve ordered is to see the BonafIDcatch seal. BonafIDcatch’s DNA testing is the only way to know for certain that you got the fish you paid for. While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration oversees the safety of our seafood supply, it isn’t equipped to catch all instances of seafood

mislabeling and fraud, as illustrated by the well-known study of fish mislabeling in high-end New York City markets. This wasn’t an isolated incident, and recent reports show fraud occurring with suppliers, restaurants, and supermarkets throughout the U.S. and worldwide.

What does this mean for consumers? It means you have to keep informed, know your seafood, and recognize certain red flags:

  • Highly desired fish like grouper or red salmon at a price that’s too good to be true.
  • Wild salmon from Alaska that’s being sold as “fresh” during winter months (this fish is being sold out of season).
  • Misleading labels that can’t be true such as “Wild Chilean Salmon” (salmon is not indigenous to Chile–all Chilean salmon is farmed), or “Wild Atlantic Salmon” (which, if it’s salmon, is almost always farmed–it is illegal to catch Atlantic Salmon in U.S. waters).

When you recognize red flags like these, it’s time to take action and do some substituting of your own by finding other fish species with similar textures and flavors.

  • Choose U.S. shrimp over imported shrimp.
  • Go for pole-caught tuna over longline/purse seine-caught tuna.
  • Instead of Chilean seabass or orange roughy, try farmed striped bass or U.S. catfish.
  • Opt for wild Alaskan salmon, rainbow trout, or farmed Arctic char instead of farmed salmon (in U.S. grocery stores and restaurants Atlantic salmon is  always farmed).

Asking the right questions, recognizing the red flags, and making appropriate substitutions are healthy steps consumers need to take when shopping for seafood, but what about country of origin labeling?

We have a right to know what’s in our food, how it’s been produced, and from where it comes. Since 2005, country of origin labeling (COOL) has required large retailers (supermarkets) that sell fresh or frozen fish to indicate the country from which the fish came, whether farm-raised or wild-caught. However, be aware that processed and altered seafood such as breaded shrimp, imitation crab, and smoked and canned fish are exempt. Also exempt are small fish markets and restaurants, although some do label voluntarily and they should be able to provide you with this information.

And what about all of those seafood certifications…what do they mean?

As far as seafood certifications are concerned, the bulk of what consumers see in grocery stores and fish markets are eco-labels. Seafood certification is the process of assuring that fish farms or fisheries have abided by certain environmental criteria. The most well-known example is the “dolphin-safe tuna” label created in the 1990s that was prompted by the demand for tuna caught without harming or killing dolphins in the process. Today the most globally recognized eco-label for wild-caught seafood is the Marine Stewardship Council’s (MSC) blue fish and check logo. Fisheries with the MSC seal of approval must demonstrate effective management, and maintain healthy ecosystems and populations.

There are also eco-labels for farmed fish, as half of all seafood is farm-raised rather than wild-caught. This vigorous growth, along with environmental and health concerns, has fueled interest in organic aquaculture. But let the buyer beware when it comes to the “organic” label. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has not yet finalized organic standards for farmed fish, though “organic” cod, shrimp, salmon, and tilapia from abroad are available in the marketplace.

Look for eco-friendly labels for seafood sustainability, but also look for the BonafIDcatch seal to ensure you’re not a victim of seafood mislabeling or fraud.