Five Fishy Cases of Seafood Fraud

Fancy some fake caviar, imaginary fish, and sushi made from an endangered species?

Published December 2, 2016

There’s a reasonable chance that the fish on your plate is a sumptuous lie, battered and fried. Seafood fraud occurs regularly through intentional mislabeling of species, meaning that the seafood you consume may not always be what you expected. In fact, when marine conservation group Oceana reviewed studies from every continent, save Antarctica, it found that roughly one in five seafood samples is mislabeled. Increasingly, sophisticated technologies are helping rein in this problem. Using DNA analysis, experts can now read the genetic signatures in animal flesh to determine its true identity. This technique is also bringing to light the sometimes-bizarre forms that seafood fraud can take. Here are some of the oddest culinary cover-ups that scientists have exposed in recent times.

Whale Sushi

In 2009, the producers behind The Cove, the scathing documentary about illegal dolphin hunting in Japan, carried out another, smaller-scale investigation—this time into seafood fraud. At a high-end restaurant in Santa Monica, California, called the Hump, they discovered whale sushi on the menu, which their DNA analysis later confirmed as endangered sei whale. The meat had been smuggled in from Tokyo, Japan, and once inside the United States, it was invoiced as “fatty tuna” to disguise its true identity. Such was the public furor over this debacle that in 2010, the restaurant was obliged to close its doors.

Jellyfish or … Bamboo?

In Southeast Asian cooking, jellyfish is an adaptable culinary staple, appearing in salads, sushi, and a dried, jerky-like form. As Italian researchers discovered, it’s also very easy to imitate. When they tested jellyfish samples from a variety of Chinese food markets in Italy, they found that 27 percent of products labeled “jellyfish” were actually other products, such as bamboo shoots and mustard greens, which look jelly-like when preserved. The researchers pointed out that disguised food could pose health risks for consumers: some species might trigger allergic reactions, for instance, or contain high levels of contaminants such as mercury, which would ordinarily make them unfit for sale.

Fake Caviar

What’s worse than counterfeit caviar? Caviar that isn’t food at all. In Bulgaria and Romania, where caviar from other fish has been passed off as that of the local, prized sturgeon, German researchers working with WWF Austria discovered a few caviar samples that lacked any trace of animal DNA whatsoever. Their hunch was that this mystery product contained completely artificial ingredients that defied identification. Since genuine caviar carries one of the highest price tags of any edible animal product, there’s a strong incentive to sell it fraudulently to unsuspecting customers.

Mysterious Tins

In 2015, Chilean port authorities uncovered fish forgery on a grand scale: over 37,000 cans from an incoming Peruvian shipment were labeled to show they contained horse mackerel, but inspection revealed that they actually held Pacific menhaden. DNA sleuthing confirmed that the fish was fraudulent. The estimated value of the intercepted menhaden came to more than US $19-million. It’s likely that the perpetrator was motivated to mislabel the fish in order to make a greater profit, or perhaps to get around import restrictions on certain species.

Imaginary Species

Douradinha, anyone? That’s a fabricated name for a species of South American catfish, Calophysus macropterus, that Brazilians avoid because of its scavenging habits: the fake name dupes people into thinking it’s something else. But even more troubling is the fact that fishermen in the region are targeting pink river dolphins—protected by law in some parts of South America—as bait to lure in this undesirable species.

The fake-name trend spans oceans: in South Africa, confusing terms like “sokomoro” and “ocean fillets” have been used to obscure the identity of shortfin mako shark, a vulnerable species.