Mislabeled seafood tends to come from poorly managed fisheries and can negatively impact marine populations. Before seafood consumption in the United States can be considered environmentally sustainable, more progress must be made to improve the accuracy of labeling.
Over the past several decades, seafood mislabeling has increasingly appeared in the news, as labels in restaurants and grocery stores have been shown to inaccurately represent the products provided to consumers. Concerns over mislabeling include consumers eating food that harms their health, paying for a more expensive product than they actually receive, or inadvertently purchasing less environmentally sustainable seafood.
One challenge in studying seafood mislabeling is that, by definition, the label is wrong—which means that data beyond the product label are required to identify and understand the mislabeling. Only then can we design approaches to combat it. Scientific advances have enabled testing that can differentiate among mislabeled seafood species. Members of our team have compiled these studies, identifying the frequently observed substitutes that often pair with certain expected products, and estimating the rates of substitution in the most frequent mislabeled product–substitute pairs.
Understanding the implications of mislabeling for marine populations and fisheries management requires information beyond these rates for multiple reasons. One is that mislabeling could be accidental or occur for a variety of reasons, and doesn’t always result in the substitution of a less sustainable option for a more sustainable product. Another important reason to look beyond seafood product substitution rates is that a product with a low rate of mislabeling, but that is consumed in high volumes, can result in substantial quantities of mislabeled seafood.
For a recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) that I published with colleagues, including RFF research analysts and interns, we take a systems-level approach to show that seafood mislabeling can threaten marine populations and undermine effective fisheries management. Our approach combines seafood production and trade data to estimate the consumption of seafood products in the United States. We then link these data to the data described above on frequently mislabeled product-substitute pairs, substitution rates, and Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program assessments.
For each product-substitute pair, we compare the expected product to the seafood substitute along multiple dimensions. We statistically test the differences between the expected products and seafood substitutes, weighting each pair with an estimate of mislabeled consumption associated with the pair. We find that substitute products are more likely to be imported than the expected products listed on the labels. This observation is concerning, because the United States has relatively strict fisheries management and relatively healthy marine populations compared to many other fisheries worldwide.
We also identify the product-substitute pairs for which both the expected and substitute seafood products in the pair are wild-caught, and then we compare the Seafood Watch program assessment scores for the expected and the substitute products. We find that substitute products have lower scores for marine population health and fishery management than the expected products they replace. In other words, the seafood substitutes tend to be less sustainable than the products listed on the labels.
We conclude that mislabeled seafood may generate negative impacts on marine populations, as mislabeled seafood may lead to the consumption of products that come from poorly managed fisheries. Thus, more progress is needed to improve the accuracy of seafood labeling before seafood consumption in the United States can be considered environmentally sustainable.
Progress in this realm is possible: strategies to combat seafood mislabeling include both government-run programs and consumer-facing initiatives. For example, the United States recently implemented the Seafood Import and Monitoring Program, which increases traceability requirements and implements some inspections for seafood products imported into the United States. The Marine Stewardship Council program focuses on fully traceable supply-chains and serves as a consumer-facing program to combat mislabeling. However, as has been pointed out by a research team that includes RFF University Fellow Jim Sanchirico, current strategies to meet sustainability goals for seafood have often failed to achieve their ambitions, especially among fisheries in developing countries. Improving the sustainability of seafood products is a persistent challenge that will require an integrated, collaborative, and innovative approach.