Fish and Seafood: Know Your Label Lingo
When it comes to fish and other seafood, the only distinction used to be “fresh” or “frozen.” Then there came “wild” and “farmed.”As more consumers have become concerned about the health of the oceans and sustainability, various eco-friendly labels and sustainability certifications have flooded the fish marketplace.
As if all that weren’t confusing enough, recent investigations using DNA testing have found that a significant portion of fish sold at fish counters and in restaurants aren’t, in fact, what their labels say they are. What’s a consumer to do? Below are some definitions of what different seafood labels mean, along with some notes and tips to help keep you informed.
Frozen seafood is, obviously, frozen. “Previously frozen” seafood was frozen and then thawed, usually at the fish counter. Sophisticated freezing methods, often taking place at sea within hours of being caught, have drastically improved the quality of frozen seafood, so there isn’t necessarily a reason to avoid frozen or previously frozen fish. Note that almost all shrimp and tuna sold at the retail level in the United States was previously frozen.
Fish labeled fresh may, in fact, have been frozen. It may also not meet your idea of “fresh.” There is no legal standard for what constitutes “fresh” fish, so it is left up to stores to set.
Wild / Wild-Caught
Wild fish and wild-caught fish are, presumably, caught in the ocean rather than being farm-raised. This is not a legal, enforceable, or certified label, however. The fishmonger should be able to tell you where a “wild” fish was caught.
Fish and shellfish that are farmed are raised in open-sea pens or land-based closed tanks. Farmed fish has gotten a bad rap for its environmental impacts. Some species have minimal environmental impacts, however, and are solid options (mussels, clams, oysters). Learning more about the farming methods used to raise different species can help you decide which farmed fish to buy and which you may want to avoid.
Type of Fish
One would think this would be pretty straight-forward, but separate investigations by both the non-profit group Oceana and by Consumer Reports found that many fish are mislabeled. For example, all of the red snapper tested was not, in fact, red snapper. Dover sole, yellowtail tuna, white tuna, and wild salmon were also often mislabeled. (Ahi tuna, bluefin tuna, sea bass, and Coho salmon were fish consistently labeled correctly.) Finding a fishmonger you trust, who knows his or her fishermen and fish, is a great start to avoid being misled. The other is to learn how to handle whole fish. Filets are much easier to mislabel than an entire gutted fish.
Country of Origin
Many stores list which country a seafood product came from. This information can be helpful in determining the likelihood that the other labels are accurate. U.S. wild fisheries tend to be very well managed, and U.S. farmed shellfish tend to have comparatively minimal environmental impacts.
USDA standards for organic fish are not yet in effect, so currently, there is no legal definition of “organic” seafood. The department is working on standards that will apply only to farmed fish. Whereas other animals must be fed 100-percent organically grown feed in order to be labeled organic, farmed fish will only need to be fed 75-percent organically grown feed. There are no regulations in terms of environmental impacts of the farming systems. The standards also don’t apply to most farmed bivalves (oysters, etc.), since they feed on naturally occurring nutrients in the water rather than being “fed.”
There are dozens of “eco” labels in the markets, each with its own specific standards and levels of certification (or relative lack thereof). The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is one of the biggest and most well-known. MSC-certified seafood must meet standards of sustainability, including fishery health, environmentally sensitive fishing methods, and overall fishery management. MSC has come under criticism lately, however, for lowering its standards, and a study published in Marine Policy found that about a third of the species the MSC lists as “sustainable” are, according to some groups, overfished.
These aren’t labels but guides to buying fish and seafood that are sustainably harvested or raised. These guides (the apps are particularly useful) are regularly updated and formatted for consumers to use while at the fish counter (or ordering at a restaurant):
Shop smarter! Check out all our “Know Your Label Lingo” articles!