NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Consumers around the nation can't be sure what kind of shrimp they're buying if they simply look at the label or menu at supermarkets, grocers and restaurants, an advocacy group says.
Oceana did a DNA-based survey of shrimp sold at outlets in New York City; Washington, D.C.; Portland, Oregon; and various spots around the Gulf of Mexico.
The group said it found about 30 percent of 143 shrimp products bought from 111 vendors were not what the label said. Cheap imported farm-raised shrimp is being sold as prized wild-caught Gulf shrimp, common shrimp sold as premium shrimp and shrimp of all kinds sold with no indication whatsoever about where they came from, the group said.
Oceana is urging Congress and regulators to enforce proper labeling.
The group acknowledged that the survey was but a small sample, but said the survey using DNA techniques is the first of its kind. The group did a similar survey last year for fish and made similar findings. A laboratory tested each sample to identify what kind of shrimp each was by species.
"It was a first good look at shrimp," said Kimberly Warner, a marine scientist with Oceana. She went out and obtained many of the samples.
Misleading and illegal labeling of food is considered a major problem among food purists because it cheats consumers and puts them at risk of tainted foods, hurts honest vendors and tarnishes an industry's product. The report said that because of mislabeling, consumers are not guaranteed they are eating shrimp that meets high, chemical-free standards.
Oceana said it found bad labeling on shrimp sold at national and regional supermarkets and smaller grocery stores alike. It also said restaurants of all kinds, from national chains to high-dollar eateries, were selling shrimp with poor labeling.
Oceana declined to provide the names of the vendors it obtained the samples from. Dustin Cranor, an Oceana spokesman, said the company did not want to identify individual vendors because "fraud can happen at any point in the supply chain."
The group's report came as no surprise to fishermen and others involved in the shrimp industry.
"I've been shouting this for ages from the rooftop," said Kimberly Chauvin, who runs a family shrimp business with fishing boats and docks in Chauvin, Louisiana.
She said shrimp mislabeling has gotten worse in recent decades, and coincided with a growing appetite for shrimp among Americans. For more than a decade, shrimp has become the nation's most popular seafood, according to federal data. The craving for shrimp has been accompanied by a major uptick in imported farm-raised shrimp, which are considered inferior to shrimp caught in the open ocean.
Chauvin said mislabeling will get worse unless regulators "start handing out big fines" to companies that break the Food and Drug Administration's labeling laws.
The Oceana survey found the worst labeling of shrimp taking place in New York City. The group found few problems in Portland but more widespread misrepresentation in Washington and the Gulf.
Jerald Horst, a Louisiana seafood writer and former state fisheries specialist, said mislabeling runs rampant in the seafood industry. He said many of the big vendors want to keep the status quo — in other words, lackluster enforcement of labeling.
"There's a lot of pressure from the major institutions for them not to do it," Horst said. "They want the freedom to do 'creative marketing.'"
Lauren Sucher, an FDA spokeswoman, said mislabeling is illegal and pointed out that the agency inspects and enforces labeling laws.