Red Snapper’s Comeback and the Threat of Seafood Mislabeling

(Updated 2/20/17: fixed broken links)

In a block of articles about sustainable seafood in Food and Wine magazine, Paul Greenberg (author of “Four Fish”*) has a bit of good news about red snapper (Lutjanus campechanus), a species that has seen a steep population declines in the last 50 years. Thanks in part to a National Marine Fisheries Service “catch share” program, populations are rebounding**.

This sounds like great news – we need all the success stories we can get – but the fish is not out of stormy waters just yet. One threat is mislabeling: imposters sold as red snapper, sometimes through ignorance, sometimes because of supply chain slip-ups, sometimes to intentionally swindle buyers (usually to sell a piece of inferior fish at a unreasonably high price, but not always, as we’ll see below).

“Isn’t it a good thing,” you might ask, “to be selling a plentiful fish in place of a threatened one?” For the fish, it’s not really a good thing, as eaters and buyers that see a particular fish on many menus and in many markets might get the false impression that it is thriving in the wild. Furthermore, if passing off a cheap piece of imported, farmed tilapia as red snapper allows a restaurant to sell their red snapper special at a relatively low price, diners might be misled by the price signal to think “if red snapper is so cheap, it must be plentiful.”  For buyers and regulators, mislabeling erodes confidence in the seafood market and imposes costs. For diners, mislabeling creates potential health risks via allergic reactions and toxins.

Fake Out
Seafood fraud got a lot of attention in 2011, with major DNA-studies from Consumer Reports and the Boston Globe (part 1 and part 2), as well as a report from Oceana (hear their chief scientist talk to Evan Kleiman on KCRW’s Good Food).

Red snapper is a popular fish for DNA-sleuths to analyze. Both of the 2011 studies, as well as one from 2004, obtained samples of fish labeled “red snapper” from various sources and ended up with disturbing results:

  • Consumer Reports: “None of the 22 ‘red snappers’ we bought at 18 markets could be positively identified as such. Eight were deemed possible DNA matches, one was described incorrectly by a store employee, and the species of another could not be conclusively determined at all. The remaining 12 turned out to be ocean perch and other kinds of snapper.”
  • In the Boston Globe article about fish fraud by Jenn Abelson and Beth Daley: “The Globe-sponsored DNA testing found 24 of the 26 red snapper samples were in fact other, less prized species, including fish collected at Minado restaurant in Natick, Teriyaki House in South Boston, and the now closed Big Papi’s Grille in Framingham, owned in part by Red Sox slugger David Ortiz.”
  • A 2004 brief communication in Nature (sub. req’d) from researchers at the University of North Carolina found that 17 of the 22 “red snapper” samples that they DNA tested were actually other species (often other types of snapper).
Red snapper fillets from FDA - UCM060669
Red snapper?  Or something else? (click photo for answer)

With fish being sold far from where it was caught and passing through many levels of distribution on the way to your table – often not as a whole fish, but as a processed fillet – it’s easy imagine intentional and unintentional mislabeling happening.  When dealing with fillets, it’s especially difficult, as only a trained expert can differentiate among the species (page 6 of the Oceana report has a collection of fillet pairs to test your identification skills).

One solution is well known to many sectors of the world economy:  careful product tracking. Each fish (or batch of fish) would get a bar code that travels with it through the supply chain.  A centralized database would provide “provenance” of the fish – where it was caught, what it was identified as, when it was bought and sold, and so forth.  At least two projects are trying something like this on a local scale.  Thisfish from EcoTrust Canada, and Gulf Wild (which was mentioned by Greenberg in his Food and Wine piece) assign codes to the fish in the project.  Buyers can go to a website to find out who caught the fish, and where, when and how it was caught.

The Name Game
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has rules that specify how fish can be marketed (extensive details in the FDA’s Seafood List).  Basically, the FDA Seafood List defines which “acceptable market name” can be used for various species and groups of species. With a few exceptions, retailers can use the more specific “scientific common name” as a market name.  Use of the vernacular name or the Latin scientific name, however, is not allowed (the ban on Latin names seems pretty stupid to me, as that name is the most definitive***). Take red snapper (L. campechanus) as an example:  either its “acceptable market name” of “snapper” and its common scientific name of “red snapper” can be used to label the fish. Vernacular names like Caribbean Red Snapper and Mexican Snapper are prohibited.

Rougheye Rockfish by W. Savary from FDA - UCM060653
Red snapper?  Or something else? (click photo for answer)

And this is where we have a problem: the most basic acceptable market names cover a broad swath of fish.  “Snapper” covers 46 species, so a retailer could sell any of the 46 with the label “snapper.” Thus, an imperiled fish like L. campechanus or Southern bluefin tuna (Thunnus maccoyii) could be sold under more generic names.  An article published in PLoS ONE found this happening for bluefin tuna, where the sushi offering of “tuna” turned out to be an endangered species (I wrote a commentary on the article and related subjects at the Ethicurean). To remedy this, the FDA (and states if FDA is too slow) should update the market rules to carve out refined market names for fish considered to be threatened or endangered. Under this system, for example, L. campechanus could only be sold as “red snapper”, not as “snapper”; T. maccoyii could only be sold as “Southern bluefin tuna,” not as “tuna.”****

Yet another problem is the vernacular name, which is not legal for use as a market name but most likely is used in conversations between fish-mongers and shoppers, waiters and diners.  Twenty-four species on the list have “red snapper” as part of their vernacular name, with 13 of these being “rockfish” and 11 being “snappers.”

What To Do
Navigating the waters of sustainable seafood can be challenging.  One could easily write a few blog posts on that subject, but instead of that here are a few tips off the top of my head:

  • Try to follow the recommendations of  organizations like Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch
  • Ask lots of questions when buying seafood at the store or a restaurant: What exactly is this fish? How do you know?  Where was it caught? How was it caught?
  • Start exploring “green list” fish like sardines and farmed mussels, oysters and clams (for some sardine love and background, check out posts by Tom Philpott and me at the Ethicurean).
  • Consult Fish2fork, a program that develops restaurant ratings using questionnaires filled out by restaurants and through independent examination of restaurants’ online menus.
  • Get smart on the subject by reading books like Paul Greenberg’s Four Fish,  Taras Grescoe’s Bottomfeeder, and Charles Clover’s The End of Line.

*  Four Fish is truly a “must read” if you have any interest in fish as a food source, or even if you just appreciate superb writing.  You can also hear Paul Greenberg talk about his book on many radio programs via an internet download or stream, like WNYC’s Leonard Lopate Show and Fresh Air from WHYY.
** It’s worth noting that some groups like Food and Water Watch oppose catch share programs for many reasons, like their potential to privatize fishing resources. Their website has numerous reports and commentaries on the subject.
***  Greenberg (or perhaps the F&W editors) missed an opportunity to educate the public about the REAL red snapper’s biological designation. In an ideal world, scientific names would become part of the fish buying universe along with excellent tracking and frequent DNA analysis of product. Perhaps high-class restaurant menus won’t spell out “Lutjanus campechanus“, but the restaurant will have tracking software that can confirm the species in tonight’s special.
**** Of course, enforcement is an issue here, with FDA already failing to properly police the 75%+ seafood that is imported into the U.S. and Republicans in Congress being unwilling to increase funding for food safety and enforcement efforts.

Photo credits
First fillet photo (Lutjanus campechanus, red snapper) from Regulatory Fish Encyclopedia: U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 1993-2010, photo by B. Tenge.  Second fillet photo (Sebastes aleutianus, rougheye rockfish) from Regulatory Fish Encyclopedia: U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 1993-2010, photo by W. Savary.

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