Americans have been shocked recently to learn that in many cases, meals at even top quality restaurants may contain counterfeit seafood. This story first arose in 2004 when the periodical Nature reported on cases of fish in restaurants being marketed as red snapper while the meals were actually any number of fish. Some months later The New York Times reported on cases of farm raised fish being intentionally mislabeled as wild salmon. Media across the USA and other countries did independent tests and found case after case of fish labeled as red snapper, salmon and other sought after species to be anything but the genuine product. An investigation by Florida's St. Petersburg Times published in August 2006 found substituted fish to actually be catfish, pollock, hake, tilapia and others.
The highly respected magazine Consumer Reports did testing and found rampant cases of salmon misrepresentation. This typically involves farm raised salmon being sold as wild caught fish. The problem is worldwide. For instance, wild salmon sold in the UK have proven to be farmed. In one case tests showed that about 10% of the wild salmon samples were actually farmed fish.
Substitution and mis-labeling is not limited to finned fish. Other seafood items such as lobster suffer from similar controversies. One organization that has been vocal about lobster is the Maine Lobster Promotion Council. Seafood labeled as lobster are sometimes actually a crustacean called langostino. The Maine Lobster Promotion Council and other organizations are quick to point out that lower quality, frozen import products can hurt the reputation of the premium American lobster when consumers see "lobster" on the menu and associate a mediocre meal with the image of a fresh American lobster product.
Shrimp are another item where one name gets applied to many species. In the USA alone, native wild shrimp include white shrimp (Litopenaeus setiferus), brown shrimp (Farfantepenaeus aztecus), pink shrimp (Penaeus duorarum), royal red shrimp (Pleoticus robustus or Hymenopenaeus robustus) and rock shrimp (Sicyonia brevirostris).
While quality seafood suppliers may offer one or more of these products fresh, consumers find any number of products to be market simply as "shrimp". The majority of shrimp sold in the USA are imported farm raised product. Obviously appearance, freshness, taste and health factors can vary between fresh local shrimp and a processed product of unknown origin, makeup and age.
As a consumer, how do we get what we pay for and expect? Much of problem goes back to reputation and being a smart shopper. A reputable market or restaurant may be able to verify that the seafood it sells is actually what it is labeled as. Many restaurant owners are aware of counterfeit seafood products and have improved quality control in their buying practices. Consumers can increase their odds of getting quality seafood by learning how to identify and judge seafood.
Another great way to enjoy top grade seafood is to buy direct from the supplier, either locally or online. Several seafood processors sell fish, crabs, lobsters, oysters and other seafood that is basically right off the boat. Seafood lovers can buy either wild caught or farm raised products and feel confident that they are getting the genuine item. The same goes for some of the smaller local seafood markets where the store owner has a one on one relationship with local commercial fishermen. While bargain hunting is tempting, taking a few minutes to shop around and perhaps pay a little more can really make the difference in terms of taste and enjoyment.