American consumers don’t eat a lot of seafood. Just 56% eat seafood twice a month, including canned and pouched products. Only 20% eat seafood twice a week or more.i If you’re intimidated by shopping for seafood or worried you might not be getting what you pay for, you’re not alone. Just 29% feel “very knowledgeable” about how to buy seafoodii, and some of that worry may stem from reports of seafood fraud.

Knowing what kinds of fraud might affect seafood may help you feel more confident at the store. The three main types of seafood fraud are:iii

  • Substitution: In this “bait and switch,” sellers count on you not being able to recognize a type of fish – especially if it is sold skinless and filleted – and swap a cheaper product for an expensive one; for example, passing off Alaskan pollock as walleye. While this is a serious fraud, it’s not very common. The FDA has found that fish are correctly labeled 85% of the time.
  • Mislabeling: This occurs when traits other than the species, such as country of origin, are misrepresented on a label to avoid regulations and fees or to bring illegally caught seafood into the marketplace.
  • Short-weighting: This is by far the most common type of seafood fraud, and it occurs when sellers add extra weight to a product, usually through over-glazing or soaking. A layer of ice or preservative is a common and legal practice to help keep seafood fresh, but too much ice means you’re paying for water, not seafood.

“From a seafood fraud standpoint, the only way to determine substitution fraud is by DNA analysis,” says Tom White, Global Manager of Seafood Certifications and Audits at NSF International. “At NSF International, we take DNA samples and match them with FDA databases to help seafood suppliers and processors feel confident that the species they’re listing on the label is the species in the package.”

Other forms of mislabeling are trickier to spot. “Country of origin fraud is terribly difficult to identify and control, because there are a lot ways around it,” Tom says. “Seafood can be transferred from boat to boat at sea, so there are a lot of opportunities for things to get really murky.”

Seafood short-weighting is easier to discover, by using a draining process to remove the moisture, and then checking the weight against a standard. Some companies have set levels of how much moisture is allowed in a product, and a moisture test shows if a product is over that limit. If so, the company may reject that product before it ever reaches your local seafood counter.

So, how can you better understand and avoid seafood fraud? When you’re at the seafood counter, Tom has some helpful tips:

  • Ask questions. “Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to ask ‘Where did this fish come from? When did it arrive? Can I see the label on the package it came in?’ They should certainly be able to show you, and help you understand what it says about the species and the country of origin.” Remember that the person behind the counter may not be an expert either, so it pays to be as educated as possible.
  • Check the label. Listing the seafood’s species and country of origin is mandatory for products sold from a counter. Stores labels must say that a fish is cod, for example, and that it is a product of the USA, China, etc. Tom says, “If it doesn’t, then I would be very cautious about that product, and I certainly wouldn’t buy it without asking ‘What country is this product coming from?’”
  • Look for recent inspections. When it comes to short-weighting, your state’s weights and measures inspectors are looking out for you. A heavy glaze of ice on Alaskan king crab legs may make them look crisp and appealing, but if retailers don’t account for the added weight of that ice, they risk heavy fines if an inspector determines there’s too much non-seafood weight in a product.

For prepackaged or frozen seafood, let the label be your guide. “We don’t expect everyone to be a seafood expert, but we work so they can rely on the labeling to say ‘OK, this label tells me what I’m buying.’ For most companies, quality and accuracy are very important; they want to deliver a product that pleases you and encourages you to buy it again,” says Tom. “But the bottom line is this: The management is required to label that product accurately, whether it’s in the glass case or on the packaging, and that’s what we do at NSF -- make sure that labeling is correct and accurate.”