A few years back, Florence Fabricant, writing in The New York Times, had a long piece on the mislabeling of wild salmon at grocers in Manhattan. Only one or two stores that had labeled their salmon as “wild” were selling wild salmon while all the others were selling farmed salmon and labeling it wild. The cost difference was nearly double with true wild salmon retailing at about $24 a pound and the farmed fish weighing in at about $11 a pound.
Subsequent stories in The New York Times and media outlets in Florida showed that the practice was widespread: Tilapia for grouper, farmed fish for wild fish, etc.
This past week, The Boston Globe ran a comparable series on mislabeling of fish in area restaurants and stores. They found escolar, catfish, and tilapia were being labeled as fancier, pricier fish in restaurants and stores. (They said that escolar is “associated with gastrointestinal problems.” There is no evidence to support the use of the word “problems” with regard to escolar. Escolar, as an oily fish, acts as a laxative when eaten in large quantities–over six ounces–by some people.)
Today the paper had an unsigned editorial calling for more Federal inspection of fish coming into the US; 84% of the fish and seafood eaten in the US, the editorial notes, come from outside the country, but are not inspected the way that fruit, vegetables, and meat are routinely. Again, not true. The Federal government, acting through the F.D.A., was supposed to get funded in 1/11 to increase inspections of all foodstuffs and medicines made outside the US, but that was vetoed by Congress. Nothing is being inspected adequately by the F.D.A., much to the frustration and concern of that agency.
The biggest problem is not whether the grouper you are eating is catfish.
The biggest problems are the salmonella traced to uninspected cantaloupe from Central America that caused deaths and illness in the US; the food borne illnesses in fenugreek and seeds from Egypt–banned by the EU after outbreaks in Germany, but still allowed in here; the potentially radioactive fish from Japan–banned in India and the EU, but allowed in here; and, most importantly, the medicines made in China and India in plants that are not subject to routine F.D.A. inspection.
The issue of mislabeling fish is real: It’s a scam by purveyors and restaurant owners.
The crisis of F.D.A. regulation is far more serious as it involves sickness and death caused by products that the Federal government does not have at present the resources to handle.
As The New York Times noted in an article by Gardiner Harris on 6/20/11: “More than 80 percent of the active ingredients for drugs sold in the United States are made abroad — mostly in plants in China and India that are rarely inspected by the F.D.A. Half of all medical devices sold in the United States are made abroad. Many kinds of antibiotics,steroids, cancer medicines and even aspirin are no longer produced in the United States, or in many cases anywhere in the Western world. Government investigators estimated in 2008 that the F.D.A. would need 13 years to check every foreign drug manufacturing plant, 27 years to check every foreign medical device plant and 1,900 years to check every foreign food plant at its rate of inspections at the time. And with imports growing faster than the agency’s inspection force, those numbers have only mounted.”
If you want to get distracted by the tilapia on your plate, go right ahead. I’m more concerned about heparin.