Mislabeling Food: Does it Matter?

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I began this blog with a question: how does the FDA regulate food in America? The more I look into it, the more it appears the answer is “very poorly”. A recent study has found that roughly a third of the fish in the United States is mislabeled in restaurants, fish markets, grocery stores, and sushi bars. Now, as a rule I do not eat fish, so my initial reaction was a bit apathetic; it didn’t really affect me at all. Still, though, I was a bit turned off by the thought of one fish being replaced by an even less appetizing fish. I knew this would cause a lot of backlash in the fishing industry and the venues that were mislabeling them.

Obviously, the fact that a third of the fish sold in American is mislabeled is a bit frightening; that is not a small fraction by any means. It begs the question of how that large a percentage went unnoticed by the FDA for so long (that is, until an external organization discovered it). Of course, it is impossible for the FDA to test every single food item in the U.S.; that’s both unreasonable and inefficient. But there has to be a more effective way of making sure Americans are eating what they think they are eating. What else could be mislabeled? Is the FDA doing anything to attempt to figure that out?

But all this discussion of regulation got me thinking about why we care so much in the first place. Why do we think eating one type of grouper is fine, but eating another is bad for us? True, some species of fish (and meat, for that matter) are not good for us by any means. The study cites allergens and “potential safety hazards” as the reason for public concern. Yet while I understand the concern for allergens, I cannot get over the idea that what we deem “acceptable” for fish is based on culture: we would prefer to pay more for Pacific cod than Atlantic cod. Likewise for grouper over Gulf grouper. The study lists no differences in health or nutrition for these replacements, just availability/appropriate price. Yes, it is important to know what is going into our bodies, but if a scientific study had to tell us, and not our upset stomachs or allergic reactions, how bad could it have really been?

The FDA’s initial response was weak: it wants to get rid of vernacular terms for fish to prevent fraud such as this. It did not apologize for any health problems this may have caused, which furthers the point: why should Americans care that they’re getting cod from a different ocean than they thought? We are so ingrained with the idea of what is “good” to eat and what is a delicacy that eating a similar species under the wrong name is an outrage. It’s similar to the fact that we scoff at the idea of eating, say, seagull, a delicacy in Newfoundland, Canada, while Indians think it’s disgusting that we eat cow. But it isn’t a difference between cultures in this case; it’s just a learned sense of what we “should” eat.

The article ends by advising consumers to buy fish in the least processed (and thus most recognizable) form possible to avoid fraud. Obviously this requires consumers actually being able to identify different species of fish, which I believe is great advice because it requires us to be more in tune with what we are eating. But it also puts the onus of regulating one’s food intake on the consumer, and not on the FDA or other government agencies like Customs & Border Protection. Indeed: what we “should” eat should not be determined by a government agency–especially one that is not doing its job–but rather by ourselves by better knowing our food.

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3 thoughts on “Mislabeling Food: Does it Matter?

  1. Pingback: State of the Field: Taste, Identity, & Values | Food & Nutrition

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