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Uncovering Fictitious and Fraudulent Fish with the Barcodes of Life

Could the DNA barcodes used to expose widespread fish fraud also become a shopper's best friend?

Argentine Roughy, Cherry Snapper, and Salmon Trout only exist at the fish market. They’re fictitious names for fish that don’t exist anywhere, except in the minds of unscrupulous fishmongers. "Grouper" sometimes gets sold as catfish. Gulf shrimp spawn, impossibly, in Thailand. Menhedan masquerade as "Pamplona Sardines in tomato Sauce." Importers traffic in "Leather Jacket Fillets" or "Freedom Cobbler."

Despite growing awareness about the origins of our food, we’re often served a completely different fish species than the ones we order. This comes with economic costs and often means that sustainable seafood you’re eating might not be so sustainable. Global "ichthyologic name-swapping" obfuscates the origins of fish, so contaminated or toxic food causing health problems often can't be traced to the source.

Last week, Oceana released a report, “Bait and Switch: How Seafood Fraud Hurts Our Oceans, Our Wallets and Our Health,” (PDF) reporting widespread fraud and encouraging stepped up inspections.

What's interesting is that the same technology scientists and amateur sleuths have been using to detect mislabeled seafood could help combat the confusion and fraud. It's called DNA bar coding and it works by comparing gene sequences of a sample fish flesh to the 8,000 varieties stored in the International Barcode of Life Project.

The technology has become much more affordable and efficient. By the end of the year, the Food and Drug Administration plans to institute routine DNA testing, the Washington Post reports. And Elizabeth Rosenthal of The New York Times says desktop DNA bar coding systems could be introduced within five years. A decade from now, inspectors might even be carrying hand-held sequencers. All of which, hopefully, will add up to a promising future for seafood, one that's a lot less fishy than today.

Illustration: Zel Stoltzfus/Oceana

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