UNC class has students investigate mislabeled seafood

Buckley Report

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — In a time when it’s hard to tell who is telling the truth about anything, at least you can trust that the seafood on your plate is what the store or restaurant said it is. Or can you?

John Bruno is a marine ecologist at UNC-Chapel Hill. Among the classes he teaches is one called seafood forensics. His students go out and investigate to see whether seafood sold in stores and served in restaurants is, indeed, what the establishment claims it is.

It all sounds rather clandestine – and something these businesses might not want the students to reveal.

“I think it varies. A lot of them do care and they are anxious for them to come in and help work with them but some do it on purpose,” says Bruno, about the businesses’ willingness to work with the students and get the labeling right.

The students use a species’ DNA to quickly determine the type of fish it is.

“We are setting up a program now where we work with vendors, we will test whatever they’re selling weekly for a given number of months and then go on a list of vendors where consumers can check that list online and then they’ll know that they can go a place and buy snapper or tilapia or shrimp or oysters or whatever with confidence that it’s accurately labeled,” says Bruno. “We plan on recertifying annually. So the certification doesn’t last forever. And a lot of times the vendors don’t necessarily know – they’re buying from distributors and they don’t know it’s being accurately labeled or not.”

This is valuable information on a number of levels.

“It’s really hard to manage species when they’re being imported and illegally substituted. It gives the consumer a sense that a really over-fished, rare species is plentiful. Like red snapper – red snapper is everywhere in our community for sale, but in the ocean red snapper is really rare and fishing of it is really restricted,” Bruno says.

And then there’s the health aspects.

“If you don’t know what you’re eating and you’re trying to avoid what we call a high-trophic level species like a tuna or swordfish because you don’t want mercury in your diet, maybe you’re pregnant or you plan on being pregnant and you eat something that is substituted, yeah, that can have real health consequences,” he says. “The lower you feed on the food chain, the better, right? A lot of the seafood we eat are top predators like tuna and sharks, that is like going out in the wild and eating a lion or tiger or bear. It’s not sustainable nor healthy for us.”

See what the most mislabeled seafood is in this edition of the Buckley Report.

Click here for more information about Seafood Watch.

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