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How to be a smart consumer about mislabeled seafood

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If you're thinking of ordering the expensive red snapper next time you eat out, save your money. "More than 90 percent of the red snapper sold nationally is actually something else—usually cheap tilapia or rockfish," says Kimberly Warner, a senior scientist at Oceana, an ocean conservation group in Washington, D.C.

In a recent nationwide report, Oceana found that about one third of the seafood sold at restaurants and grocery stores isn't really what the label or menu says it is. Not only can mislabeling rip you off, but it also puts you at risk of unwittingly eating fish high in mercury or other toxins—not exactly the health boost you hope to get from seafood. Learn how you can be a smarter consumer.

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Bait and switch

It all comes down to one simple cheat: Cheaper varieties of fish get labeled as more expensive ones, either by fishermen, wholesalers or, to a lesser extent, chefs. And there's little risk for the perpetrators; according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, less than 1 percent of imported seafood is physically examined by the FDA to make sure it's genuinely what it is claimed to be.

A fish can pass through a dozen hands before it reaches your plate, and fish fraud can happen at any point along the way. First come the fishermen, who put their catch on ice and sometimes transfer it to larger vessels for transport. There, it can get mixed up by accident or on purpose with other species. If the fish is processed (the head and guts removed) on board, it's even harder to ID it just by looking. "Commingling red snapper with other types—and calling it all red snapper—could get the fisherman or wholesaler several more dollars per pound," said Warner. Wholesalers sell to chefs and retailers, who then pass the inflated price on to you, the customer.

While you'd think it would be easy for the pros—like retailers and chefs—to spot mislabeled fish, it's actually tricky. "Many species look very similar and require DNA testing to properly identify as authentic, so we have to rely on and trust our established relationships and credible suppliers, whether it's a local fisherman or a large wholesaler," said Rick Moonen, chef and owner of RM Seafood and Rx Boiler Room in Las Vegas. The FDA, in fact, has started using DNA sequencing—rather than exclusively relying on an inspector's trained eye—to ID seafood.

Adding more confusion, the naming standards for seafood aren't consistent from state to state, says Jonathan E. Fielding, MD, director of the Department of Public Health for Los Angeles County, which assembled a task force on seafood fraud last year. For instance, rockfish can be called Pacific red snapper in California, but not in New York, he says.

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What's the catch?

If you eat fish once a week, you could end up overspending by $500 or more in a year's time. Tilapia fillets cost about $8 per pound—and are sometimes substituted for red snapper, which goes for about $24 per pound. Flounder is typically $14 per pound, but if it's labeled as halibut, it can be sold at $25 per pound. As Warner said, "It's like paying for filet mignon but getting only ground beef."

More alarming than the price-gouging is the potential health hazard: The FDA recommends that all pregnant women, nursing mothers and women who might become pregnant avoid eating king mackerel, swordfish, shark and tilefish because they contain high levels of mercury, a contaminant that can harm the nervous system of a fetus or baby. (Mercury is harmful to you at any age, but it's particularly dangerous to a developing fetus.) Yet high-mercury species can sometimes stand in for safer fish: Reports have found king mackerel and tilefish being sold as grouper, red snapper and halibut. An investigation by Consumer Reportsdiscovered that 56 percent of the salmon marketed as wild was actually farmed, which could increase your risk of being exposed to PCBs, contaminants often found in farmed salmon that have been shown to cause cancer in animals.

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Reel in good picks

Seafood fraud probably will not go away anytime soon. But that doesn't mean you should avoid fish entirely. Use the following moves to help ensure that you get what you paid for:

Buy direct. Avoid supply-chain shenanigans by going directly to the fisherman (at a farmers market or pier). "I buy crab, flounder and porgy at my local market," Warner says.

Get with the program. Some grocery chains—such as Wegmans and Whole Foods—and hundreds of restaurants offer information on the source of seafood through companies including Trace Register and Trace and Trust. Go to traceandtrust.com to find participating restaurants. When you order a fish, it comes with an ID number. Typing it into the website turns up the species of fish, when the batch was caught and even a picture and bio of the boat captain. "It's the seafood equivalent of farm-to-table, only better in many cases," says Moonen.

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Stick with safer bets. In restaurants, mahimahi, flounder and tilapia were least likely to be mislabeled, per Oceana. Salmon is also unlikely to be mislabeled, other than sometimes being called wild when it's farmed. Shellfish isn't usually mislabeled, though crabmeat is sometimes falsely said to be from Maryland. Red snapper, grouper and halibut are among the fish most likely to have species substituted for them, per Oceana.

Go canned. While research is preliminary, tests so far have not found labeling problems with canned tuna, says Dirk Steinke, PhD, director of education and outreach at the University of Guelph's Biodiversity Institute of Ontario. The potential for mislabeling is likely reduced because canned fish passes through fewer hands than fresh fish.

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Ask lots of questions. In some regions, supermarket chains are half as likely to sell mislabeled fish as restaurants or small stores, since big companies generally require higher levels of accountability, Warner says. But don't give up on the little guys. "Get to know your fishmonger and ask where the seafood came from," she says. "If they can tell you, for instance, that it's from a fisherman they've worked with for years, it justifiably increases your confidence level." Ditto for restaurants. "Chefs are motivated by what their customers want," Moonen says. "If they have customers asking details about the seafood, they're obligated to spend more time investigating the best choices themselves."

This article originally appeared on Health.com.