It’s Not Just Subway: ‘Fishy’ Fraud Is Rampant Everywhere

The Subway tuna saga continues.

A New York Times investigation into the sandwich chain’s tuna found “no amplifiable tuna DNA,” suggesting that the so-called tuna sandwich was not, in fact, tuna fish. Subway later questioned the reliability of the DNA tests, claiming in a statement that it “is simply not a reliable way to identify denatured proteins like Subway’s tuna, which was cooked before it was tested.”

The viral “fake tuna” debacle has undoubtedly hurt Subway’s brand, and heightened a popular perception of corporations as shifty and untrustworthy. Yet regardless of the mystery meat’s provenance, the saga highlights a larger industrial supply chain problem — namely, that fish fraud, as it is known, is prevalent. That means that if indeed some of Subway’s tuna is “fake,” it may not entirely be their fault.

Tuna isn’t the only fish that has fraud problems. Oceana, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit ocean conservation group, began to investigate seafood fraud in 2011 and has since uncovered troubling patterns. In 2016 the group released a report about the worldwide scope of seafood fraud that detailed a pervasive, stomach-churning cheat of unsuspecting consumers. On average, one out of five of the more than 25,000 samples of seafood that they tested from 55 countries were mislabeled, with the trend occurring at every stage of the supply chain.

In the United States, studies released since 2014 found the average fraud rate (weighted by sample size) to be 28 percent. Worldwide, Asian catfish, hake, and escolar were the fish most commonly substituted; more than half of the replacement fish (58 percent) were from species that could get certain consumers sick. In Italy, 82 percent of the 200 swordfish, grouper, and perch samples tested were revealed to have been mislabeled; nearly half of the substituted fish have been labeled “threatened with extinction” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Why is fish fraud so prevalent? The answer boils down to lack of regulation, poor regulatory bodies, and the profit motive — in other words, capitalism. Indeed, very few businesses seriously follow their responsibility to trace the origins of their fish, and they can get away with it because their business is difficult to observe.

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