Seafood Buyer’s Beware: Mislabeling and Short-Weighing

Don't get duped into buying poor and mislabeled seafood at fish markets and grocery stores.

Seafood Case

A nonprofit study in 2018 found 20 percent of the 449 seafood samples they tested were imposters.

The other day, I got a hankering for a big bowl of cioppino. I had frozen squid, some gorgeous, frozen, USA-caught U-12 shrimp, a bag of frozen garden-tomato sauce, and a couple-dozen littlenecks I’d dug up the weekend before. (Littlenecks are like garlic in my kitchen – I am rarely without.) I decided some fresh haddock would be the perfect addition to round out the dish, so off to the fish market I went.

The market I usually patronize is top-notch. They buy clams from local commercial shellfishers and make a daily run to a seafood wholesaler in the city, where they sell their clams and buy fresh fish for their display case. The store is impeccably clean, the case is always loaded with a copious amount of crushed ice, and the fillets are cut to perfection. The prices are high, but the quality of their product is second to none.

So, I walked in, placed my order for a pound and a half of haddock, and immediately got distracted by all the other great-looking seafood lurking behind the glass.

That night, when I opened the package, I immediately knew something wasn’t quite right. Haddock is almost always sold with the skin on, presumably so that the buyer can tell that it is indeed haddock. This fillet was skinless and almost three inches thick. Most haddock landed locally weigh less than five pounds, and this fillet appeared to come from a 20-plus-pound specimen.

That’s odd, I thought. If this fillet had indeed come from a haddock, that fish would have been a world-record contender. I inspected it closely and unearthed a miniscule fleck of soft, brown skin. My haddock was actually cod, or possibly hake.

I’ve been buying fish at that market for years and have never been dissatisfied. However, I had never seen the young girl behind the counter before; perhaps she was new and simply grabbed from the wrong pile of fillets. Both haddock and cod are among my favorite fish to eat, although I much prefer haddock in a dish like cioppino since it has a firmer texture and holds together much better when braised or poached. I did not register a complaint with the store since I was partially at fault for not paying attention.

I do not know if I was intentionally duped, or if was just an honest mistake. But what I do know is that mislabeled fish is a widespread problem with seafood in America.

Seafood Mislabeling

In 2018, Oceana, a marine conservation nonprofit studying seafood mislabeling, published a report that found 20 percent of the 449 seafood samples they tested were imposters. They bought fish from restaurants, seafood markets, and large grocery stores in 25 different states. The samples were then sent to a lab for DNA analysis.

Sea bass and snapper were the most common offenders, and the study revealed fish ordered at restaurants was more prone to mislabeling than fish bought at grocery stores or fish markets.

Sushi restaurants seem to be some of the biggest culprits. Another study done in 2017 by researchers at the University of California found that approximately 50 percent of the sushi sold in L.A. restaurants didn’t match up with what was listed on the menu.

Mislabeling is more common with cheaper, imported fish that is sometimes dubiously sold as “local catch.” This is particularly alarming, considering that the vast majority of fish consumed in the US is imported. Consumers should be particularly wary of any seafood coming from Asia, where large-scale fish farming is loosely regulated.

Rodent filth, drug residue, undeclared allergens, and salmonella are just a few of the health violations that caused the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to deny large shipments of seafood imports in recent years. And while the FDA is responsible for testing imports, sadly, it’s estimated that less than 5% is actually inspected. This leaves the door wide open for both fraud and greed, and it allows a huge amount of questionable seafood to enter the domestic market.

Short-Weighing Seafood

Mislabeling is not the only fraud being carried out by seafood purveyors. Over the years, both wholesalers and retailers have devised fiendish tricks to get more money for their product, perhaps the most common of which is the practice of “short-weighing.” This can be achieved in several ways. On the retail front, one of the most common techniques is used with live lobsters. When you pull a lobster out of the water tank holding it upside down, its tail acts like a cup and holds quite a bit of water. If the fishmonger quickly pulls out a lobster in that way and immediately puts it in a tub on a scale, you are being duped. When buying lobsters, always keep an eye on the vendor, and make sure you are not paying $10 per pound for water.

Short Weighing Seafood
Short-weighing is an old trick used in the seafood industry to add weight (and cost) to a product.

Short-weighing is perhaps most common when buying frozen seafood. Wholesalers spray the seafood with water right before flash-freezing it, which adds weight. This tactic is frequently used with frozen shrimp.

Short Weighing Shrimp
The seafood is flash-frozen, sprayed with water, and then frozen again.

Another form of short-weighing involves wet-packing. This is quite common with scallops, which are soaked in a water solution containing phosphates that are used as a whitening agent to keep the product looking fresh longer. But, phosphates also allow the scallops to absorb water and can increase their weight by up to 30 percent. Much of that liquid escapes in the cooking process, causing them to steam in the pan and making it much harder to get a caramelized surface without overcooking. When shopping for scallops, look for “dry-packed” ones, meaning that they were shucked and shipped packed on ice with no chemical additives.

I recently conducted a test on some frozen jumbo shrimp. I weighed the shrimp straight out of the freezer and defrosted them in the sink in a colander with a bowl below to collect the water. 18.5 ounces of shrimp resulted in just under half a cup (3.7 ounces) of water, which is about 25 percent by weight. I paid $25 for a 2-pound bag, which means I spent $6.25 for water.

Imported Shrimp

Shrimp has been the most popular seafood in the US for years—it represents more than a quarter of the seafood eaten in this country. Unfortunately, 90% of the shrimp consumed in the US is imported. Beware of shrimp from southeast Asia; many are farm-raised in deplorable conditions, raised on questionable feed, and often loaded with antibiotics. When buying shrimp, look for wild-caught over farm-raised. US-caught shrimp is the best; sadly, it can be tough to find. There is also good wild-caught shrimp coming from South America, which is my second pick. You will pay a hefty price, but at least you will know what you are eating.

I am thankful that we are rounding the corner and a new fishing season is upon us. My trips to the local fish market will become few and far between as the season progresses, and I am very much looking forward to catching my own fish again, knowing exactly what I’m eating, where it came from, and how it was handled. We are blessed with some of the best seafood in the world, so never take that for granted.

Fresh, local seafood has become quite expensive. If the price seems too good to be true, it is probably for a reason. Many of the bay scallops served in local restaurants are actually farm-raised in China and “wet packed” with phosphates, which makes them retain water. They are not nearly as good as the real deal, which are selling for $40 per pound right now.

4 on “Seafood Buyer’s Beware: Mislabeling and Short-Weighing

  1. paul kutscera

    Wow! Great information,esp that trick with the lobsters. ASK THE Fishmonger to let you take a look at the lobster BEFORE it hits the scale and Turn it upside down to “Drain” it.

    I work DAMN hard for my money and the thought of some jerk at a seafood store ADDING weight to an already WAY overpriced pieceof fish or shellfish in Enraging. THANKS for the tips.


    BJ’S has US gulf shrimp frozen for about $10 a pound, need to look for the bag that says “gulf shrimp”, Costco has alaskan sockeye salmon, alaskan cod and sometimes alaskan pollock, I wouldn’t buy anything from a supermarket or even a fish store unless it can ONLY be a local product, like a porgie, a whiting or clams, mussels and oysters, these are never imported. I also do not buy tuna, swordfish, patagonia toothfish (now called chilean seabass) as these fish are nearly depleated from the world’s waters, do your part , buy American, stay away from imported fish, EAT WELL!

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