When buying shrimp, you may not be getting all you're paying for. A study out Thursday reveals that nearly a third of shrimp products are being misrepresented, everything from labeling farmed species as "wild" to using aquarium pets as fillers in bags of salad-sized shrimp. The government is taking steps to make the seafood we eat safer, but current measures may not be going far enough to address the problem.
Oceana, an international environmental advocacy group, tested a total of 143 shrimp products from 111 grocery stores and restaurants in New York, Washington, D.C., the Gulf of Mexico and Portland, Oregon. DNA tests showed that 30 percent of the products tested were misrepresented in their labeling, according to researchers. The most common error was labeling farmed whiteleg shrimp as "wild" shrimp or "Gulf" shrimp. In one case, a bag of salad-sized shrimp purchased in the Gulf had a branded coral shrimp, an aquarium fish not meant for consumption.
"While shrimp is the most commonly consumed seafood in the U.S., and the most highly traded seafood in the world, its high demand has led to conservation concerns as well as bait and switch on consumers," Beth Lowell, a senior campaign director at Oceana, said.
The biggest misrepresentations occurred in New York, where 43 percent of the shrimp tested were inaccurately labeled. Products tested from Washington, DC and the Gulf of Mexico were improperly labeled around 30 percent of the time, while in Portland the rate was much lower at 5 percent.
"Without tracking where, when and how our seafood is caught or farmed, and ensuring that this basic information follows the product through each step in the supply chain, shrimp will continue to be misrepresented," Lowell said in a statement.
About 90 percent of the seafood consumed in the United States is imported, but not all of it is - so to speak - above the table. A huge black market has developed for illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. The government has acknowledged that global losses from IUU fishing could be as high as $23 billion each year, in addition to harming legitimate fishermen and threatening the long term stability of fish stock around the world.
There are measures in place to test imported seafood, but the efforts aren't staffed or funded to do enough. In 2012, more than 11 million potential samples of food were imported into the United States. The Food and Drug Administration was able to physically examine just under 2 percent of them. Since each sample analyzed costs the FDA more than $3,000, testing all the food that comes into the US would cost about $34 billion or about 8.5 times the agency's entire 2014 budget. So it's not a surprise that according to a 2011 study conducted by the Government Accountability Office, the FDA fell short of its seafood-inspection goals by nearly 30 percent every year between 2006 and 2009.
This past June, President Barrack Obama created a task force to develop "a Comprehensive Framework to Combat Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing and Seafood Fraud." In the memorandum, President Obama wrote of the new goals: "All agencies and offices charged with overseeing the seafood supply chain and verifying the authenticity of its products shall implement and enforce relevant policies, regulations, and laws to ensure that seafood sold in the United States is legally caught and accurately labeled."
The task force has until December to come up with recommendations on how to implement the plan.
"We think this task force provides an excellent opportunity to implement full chain traceability and better seafood labeling to combat fraud using tools the government already has," Kimberly Warner, Oceana senior scientist and author of the report, told CBS News.
Not everyone agrees that labeling should be the priority. The task force asked for public comment in person and online. The website received 56 replies, one of them from Benjamin Vitter of California who wrote, "It would be especially sad if a renewed emphasis on labeling accuracy ends up depleting vulnerable species because of a misguided sense by scientists that accuracy is always a good thing- in this case it may contribute to a slow-motion ecological disaster."
Today's study only focused on shrimp, which according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is the most popular seafood in the United States, but it's not Oceana's first investigation into mislabeled and misrepresented fish. In a national study released last year, Oceana found that out of more than 1200 fish samples tested, 33 percent were not accurately labeled according to FDA guidelines.